Posted in Education policy, Progressivism, School reform

How Dewey Lost

This week’s post is a piece I presented at a conference in Switzerland and then published in an obscure book in 2010.  Here’s the original version.

It’s a story about the contest for dominance in US education in the early 20th century between pedagogical and administrative progressivism, between John Dewey and a collection of figures such as Thorndike and Cubberley.  It’s about why, although Dewey may have won the heart of educators, he lost the fight for control of the structure and function of public schooling.  It focuses in particular on one of the strangest and most loathsome characters in the history of American education, David Snedden.

Consider two implications of this analysis.  First, coarseness is an advantage in the contest of competing ideas for school reform.  Dewey’s vision of progressive education – child-centered, inquiry based, personally engaging, and socially just – is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education.  It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.

But the administrative progressive vision of education – as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future – is a weed.  It will grow almost anywhere.  Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work.  The weed of social efficiency grows under difficult conditions because its primary goal is to be useful in the narrowest sense of the term: it aims for survival rather than beauty.  But Dewey’s vision of education defines success in the richness of learning that is experienced by the child, and this is not possible without the proper cultivation.

            A second implication is this:  Winning ideas for social reform disappear from view and their authors are forgotten, whereas losing ideas and their authors remain visible.  For example, one winning idea in the history of school reform is the age-graded self-contained classroom, which was a radical innovation of the common school movement in the U.S. but which quickly disappeared into the grammar of schooling to the point where it now seems to us utterly natural.  How else could school be organized?  Since it is part of the way things are, this reform’s originators and their vision are now forgotten.  The same is true with education for social efficiency.  This has become part of the common sense understanding of what education is all about, so it is now detached from its original proponents, people like Snedden and Kingsley and Prosser.  We do not identify them as authors of this vision of education any more than we identify authors of  natural laws, since these laws are not inventions but descriptions of the way things are.  It would be like asking, who invented gravity?  Meanwhile, however, losing ideas and their proponents both remain visible.

Child-centered progressivism is still standing outside the walls of the school trying to break in, so it continues to define itself in opposition to the way things are in schools, and it continues to call on Dewey’s name for support.  In some ways, then, Dewey’s undiminished prominence in the realm of educational ideas is a sign of his failure in changing American schools, and Snedden’s anonymity is a sign of his success.

How Dewey Lost:

The Victory of David Snedden and Social Efficiency

in the Reform of American Education

by

David F. Labaree

In a book about the role of pragmatism in modernization, this paper provides a look
at one alternative set of ideas – social efficiency – which competed quite
successfully with John Dewey’s pragmatic vision for the heart of American
education. I approach this analysis as a sociologically oriented historian rather than
as a philosopher. From this perspective, the contest over competing visions of
schooling is not judged according to the rules that govern formal debate, such as
rigorous logic and solid evidence. Instead, reform ideas win or lose according to
the way they resonate with a particular social context, attract or repel particular
constituencies, and respond to the social problems that are seen as most salient at
the time. Ironically, the most successful reform ideas, as they become part of the
natural landscape of schooling, tend to lose their connection to the original author
and to disappear from view. In contrast, losing ideas tend to remain identified with
their creator and preserve their visibility, precisely because they are still outside the
walls of the school trying to find a way in. In this chapter I explore a particular
debate in the history of American education that demonstrates some of these
characteristics of educational ideas in school reform. Along the way, this analysis
tries to sort out why Dewey, America’s most enduringly visible educational
thinker, has had so little impact on the way schools work.

In 1977, the American academic journal Curriculum Inquiry devoted most of its spring issue to a debate about liberal and vocational education between John Dewey and David Snedden that took place 60 years earlier.  The issue included Snedden’s 1914 speech on the subject to the National Education Association and a series of pieces that were published The New Republic in the following year, including two articles by Dewey, Snedden’s response, and Dewey’s counter; Walter H. Drost, Snedden’s biographer, provided an analysis of the issues in the debate.  If readers of the journal were wondering why it was devoting all this space to the subject, an editorial explained that the concerns raised on both sides of the debate were emerging once again in the 1970s with the discussion of the latest incarnation of vocationalism known as “career education.”

To the contemporary eye, however, this does not look like much of a debate.  Dewey is arguably America’s greatest philosopher, educational thinker, and public intellectual, whereas Snedden is now largely forgotten.  As the latter’s biographer, Drost needed to revive the debate with Dewey in order to introduce Snedden to a modern audience and establish him as a once credible figure in the field.  And when we read the debate today, Snedden’s ideas come across as educationally narrow, politically conservative, and just plain odd.  He argued that “social economy” called for a system of vocational education that prepares the “rank and file” to become efficient “producers,” asserting that this form of schooling needs to be separated from liberal education, which – although its purposes “are as yet shrouded in the clouds of mysticism” – may still be useful for those who are going to be “utilizers.”  In contrast, Dewey’s ideas seem to resonate better with current political, social, and educational thinking.  He charged that Snedden’s system of “narrow trade training” leads to “social predestination” and argued instead for a broad vision of vocational education that has “as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.”

Dewey had the last word in the debate in The New Republic, and reading both sides today, he comes away from the exchange as the clear winner on points.  But if Dewey won the debate, it was Snedden who won the fight to set the broader aims of American education in the twentieth century.  The debate was followed quickly by two events that set the tone for educational system for the next 100 years – the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act (1917), establishing a federal program of support for vocational education, and the issuance of the NEA report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1918).  Both documents reflected key elements of the social efficiency vision that Snedden espoused and Dewey detested, a vision that has characterized schooling in the U.S. ever since.

In this chapter I seek to answer the question:  How could someone as utterly forgettable as David Snedden trounce the great John Dewey in the contest to define the shape and purpose of American education?  Drost is circumspect in judging his subject, but two reviewers of his biography of Snedden are less cautious in assessing the educator’s stature.  Willis Rudy put it this way:  “David Snedden, professor of educational administration, emerges from these pages as the very prototype of the stock pedagogue-philistine figure of modern times, half-educated, anti-intellectual, instinctively hostile to humanistic culture.”[1]  Robert L. Church reviewed the Drost book in conjunction with a biography of Edward L. Thorndike titled The Sane Positivist, and in his view, “If Thorndike was a ‘sane positivist,’ perhaps we should brand David Snedden an ‘insane’ one.”[2]

I begin with a review of the major issues in Snedden’s debate with Dewey.  Then I examine Snedden’s career in the context of the larger educational reform movement for social efficiency and his growing marginalization just at the point when this movement emerged triumphant.  Since he is the unfamiliar character in the story, I focus my attention primarily on him rather than the world-famous Dewey.  Finally, I explore what we can learn about the history of school reform in the U.S. from the short-lived fame and lasting impact of a figure like Snedden.  I close with an analysis of why ideas like Dewey’s have more impact on educational thought than educational practice, and why the ideas of a figure like Snedden can win and then disappear into the grammar of schooling, leaving the author largely forgotten.

The Snedden-Dewey Debate

The exchange in The New Republic was triggered by an earlier debate about the meaning of liberal and vocational education which took place between Snedden and William C. Bagley at the annual meeting of the National Education Association.  At that point (July, 1914) Snedden was Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts, while Bagley was a professor of education at University of Illinois.

Snedden began his speech stating that the world was changing and education must change with it.  Under these conditions, we could no longer rely on a general or liberal education, which was grounded in custom and a prescientific belief in its usefulness that bordered on “mysticism.”  Instead, he said, the public demanded a scientific form of vocational education.  The difference between the two is that a vocational education prepares people to be producers while a liberal education prepares them to be “utilizers” of what others produce.[3]

For students in the younger grades, a more efficient form of liberal education is appropriate, and this is also true for a small number of older students “who have the time and the inclination” (the future utilizers).  But for the large majority of students between the ages of 14 and 20 (those who will become producers), the focus should be on vocational education.  Since the purposes of vocational education differ greatly from those of liberal education, so too must the organizational form and curriculum content.  Vocational preparation needs to take place in separate schools, which “must, to a large extent, reproduce practical processes, must give the pupil many hours of each working day in actual practical work, and must closely correlate theoretical instruction to this practical work.”  As a result, “The vocational school should divest itself as completely as possible of the academic atmosphere, and should reproduce as fully as possible the atmosphere of economic endeavor in the field for which it trains.”  In addition, “the pedagogical methods to be employed must be those involving concentration, painstaking application to detail, and continuity of purpose,” and these need to be precisely tailored to the skill demands of each occupational specialty.[4]

In his response, Bagley rejected both Snedden’s diagnosis of the problem with education and his prescription for a cure.  He defended traditional liberal education against the charges made by his opponent, arguing that “The evidence for these sweeping indictments has, as far as I know, never been presented,”[5] and he asserted that Snedden’s distinction between education for production and utilization merely reproduced the old discredited distinction between education for gentlemen of leisure and education for workers.  At the end he warned about “the danger of social stratification…inherent in separate vocational schools.”[6]

Dewey, who was working on Democracy and Education at the time, felt the need to develop his own response to Snedden, one that did not incorporate Bagley’s academic essentialism, his defense of traditional liberal education, and his suspicion of all kinds of progressive educational reform.  So he wrote a series of two articles for The New Republic on industrial education.  The discussion, which never referred to Snedden by name, was relatively mild and indirect, including a long and opaque discussion of a law promoting vocational education in Indiana.  He made two main arguments against the vision of vocationalism promoted by people like Snedden: this form of education was politically slanted toward the interests of manufacturers, and it was impractical in application.  Noting that, though manufacturers had long provided special skill training to their employees,

It is natural that employers should be desirous of shifting the burden of their preparation to the public tax-levy.  There is every reason why the community should not permit them to do so….  [E]very ground of public policy protests against any use of the public school system which takes for granted the perpetuity of the existing industrial regime, and whose inevitable effect is to perpetuate it, with all its antagonisms of employers and employed, producer and consumer.”[7]

In addition he noted that the very factors that led to the destruction of the apprenticeship system – particularly “the mobility of the laboring population from one mode of machine work to another”[8] – would also make vocational training in specific job skills impractical.

Snedden wrote a long letter in response to Dewey’s argument, which was published in May of 1915, three months after Dewey’s second article.  He sounded a bit puzzled and hurt to find Dewey disagreeing with him.

We have…reconciled ourselves to the endless misrepresentations of numerous reactionaries and of the beneficiaries of vested educational interests and traditions.  But to find Dr. Dewey apparently giving aid and comfort to the opponents of a broader, richer and more effective program of education, and apparently misapprehending the motives of many of those who advocate the extension of vocational education in schools designed for that purpose, is discouraging.[9]

Following a pattern he used throughout his career when he encountered opposition to his proposals, he responded by patiently repeating his points and redefining concepts in his own terms without ever engaging the more fundamental critiques of his opponent.  Ignoring Dewey’s point about the social functions of vocational education in a capitalist economy, he restated his own view, that “Vocational education is, irreducibly and without unnecessary mystification, education for the pursuit of an occupation.”[10]  He went on to say:  “Now, many of us have been forced, and often reluctantly, to the conclusion that if we are to have vocational education for the rank and file of our youth as well as for the favored classes, we shall be obliged to provide special vocational schools for this purpose….”[11]

Dewey’s reply was uncharacteristically blunt and forceful in rejecting Snedden’s arguments, as he deepened and clarified his own vision of vocationalism.  It is worth quoting at length, since it defines the stark contrast between the two visions, a contrast that he saw much more clearly than his befuddled opponent.

I would go farther than he is apparently willing to go in holding that education should be vocational, but in the name of a genuinely vocational education I object to the identification of vocation with such trades as can be learned before the age of, say, eighteen or twenty; and to the identification of education with acquisition of specialized skill in the management of machines at the expense of an industrial intelligence based on science and a knowledge of social problems and conditions.  I object to regarding as vocational education any training which does not have as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.  I have my doubts about theological predestination, but at all events that dogma assigned predestinating power to an omniscient being; and I am utterly opposed to giving the power of social predestination, by means of narrow trade-training, to any group of fallible men, no matter how well intentioned they may be….

Dr. Snedden’s criticisms of my articles seem to me couched in such general terms as not to touch their specific contentions.  I argued that a separation of trade education and general education of youth has the inevitable tendency to make both kinds of training narrower, less significant and less effective than the schooling in which the material of traditional education is reorganized to utilize the industrial subject matter – active, scientific and social – of the present-day environment.  Dr. Snedden would come nearer to meeting my points if he would indicate how such a separation is going to make education “broader, richer and more effective”….

Apart from light on such specific questions, I am regretfully forced to the conclusion that the difference between us is not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social.  The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will “adapt” workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.  It seems to me that the business of all who would not be educational time-servers is to resist every move in this direction, and to strive for a kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial system, and ultimately transform it.[12]

Understandably, perhaps, Snedden never responded to this final blast, so Dewey had the last word in the debate.  His statement remains to this day the most insightful and compelling critique of the social efficiency movement.  But Dewey’s rejoinder had no apparent effect on Snedden, who continued making the same case for a socially efficient and vocationally useful form of education throughout the 1920s and 30s, the only difference being that his arguments grew increasingly extreme and his influence within education grew increasingly weak.  More significantly, however, Dewey’s critique of social efficiency also had no significant effect on the direction of American public education, which by the early 1920s was lining up solidly behind the social efficiency vision. Herbert Kliebard put it this way, in commenting on the long-term outcome of the debate,  “Needless to say, Snedden’s version with its emphasis on occupational skill training was the ultimate victor in terms of what vocational education became, while Dewey’s ‘industrial intelligence’ in the sense of an acute awareness of what makes an industrial society tick is almost nowhere to be found.”[13]  In short, the administrative progressive vision of David Snedden, with its focus on social efficiency and educational utility, defeated the alternative progressive vision of John Dewey, with its focus on social justice and educational engagement.

David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency

Walter Drost captures the central story of Snedden’s career in the title of his biography of the man, David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency.[14]  In this section I sketch the course of Snedden’s career as the prime proponent of social efficiency.

Born in 1868, Snedden grew up on a modest ranch in northern California, where he helped herd cattle and was educated in a one-room log schoolhouse.  He attended St. Vincent’s college in Los Angeles (later Loyola University) and took a position as an elementary teacher in 1889.  In short order he became an elementary principal and then high school principal before quitting to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in education at Stanford University in 1895 (just four years after Stanford opened).  Upon graduating two years later, he took a position as a high school principal and superintendent in Paso Robles, California.  In 1900 he addressed the Stanford Alumni Association and sufficiently impressed President David Starr Jordan that the latter offered to hire him as a professor of education if he would first earn a master’s degree.  He did so at Teachers College and then returned to teach at Stanford until 1905, when he went back to TC to pursue a doctorate.

Snedden’s interest in education for social efficiency appeared quite early in his career.  As a teacher in the early 1890s, he avidly read the works of Herbert Spencer, which he acknowledged in his memoirs as having “laid the groundwork for [his] subsequent thinking.”[15]  As a student at Stanford, his strongest connection was with Edward A. Ross, a sociologist who at the time was developing the ideas for his most influential book, published in 1900, called Social Control.  From these two thinkers, he drew a rather literal understanding of their central constructs – social Darwinism and social control – which shaped all of his later work as an educational reformer.  Two early pieces of writing in particular show these influences and set the tone for his later work:  his 1900 speech at Stanford and his 1906 doctoral dissertation at Teachers College.

His address to the alumni was titled, “The Schools of the Rank and File.” As he told the audience, he wanted to talk with them about public education.

I want especially to consider that education as it affects the rank and file of society; for it we are right in thinking that training for leadership will largely become the function of the university, it still remains true that the most careful consideration must be given to those who will do duty in the ranks, who will follow, not lead.[16]

Noting that the rapid expansion of the high school at the start of the twentieth century meant that it “has ceased to be for the leisure class alone,” he went on to explain what character this evolving institution should now assume.  “And in the nature of our civilization to-day there are the strongest reasons why the system of public education should increasingly continue to absorb, not only training for culture’s sake, but that utilitarian training which looks to individual efficiency in the world of work.”[17]

If this was the direction the high school should head, then the curriculum would need a complete transformation.  Instead of focusing on the classics, the new foundation of education would be vocational training for the many instead of an education in high culture for the few.  In this new educational order, traditional school pursuits – such as the study of classical languages, math, science, and English literature – were no long useful for most students.  While acknowledging that “these subjects may represent the best preparation for higher education,” he concludes that “the demand is general for education more nearly related to the necessities of active life, and, as far as the ordinary ranks of society are concerned, I am unable to see that the demand is a mistaken one.”[18]

This speech launched Snedden’s career as an educational reformer and education professor, winning him a job on the Stanford faculty and the opportunity to pursue a doctorate at Teachers College.  He completed his doctoral program in 12 months (this was common at the time, but it does resonate with Willis’s depiction of him as “half-educated”), after writing a dissertation on juvenile reform schools.  If his Stanford speech worked out the social efficiency theme in his future work, the dissertation connected that with the social control theme.  For Snedden did not see reform schools as a marginal educational enterprise for delinquent youth; instead, he saw them as a model for the new schools of the rank and file.  Unlike traditional schools, reform schools focused on a troubled subset of the population rather than the heterogeneous whole; they provided targeted training in particular occupational skills for these students rather than a general liberal education; they did so in a highly structured manner, based on scientific placement in the right program; and their educational process emphasized the discipline of the workplace.  If only schools in general would adopt this mix of differentiated vocational skill training and social discipline.

His dissertation won him an appointment at Teachers College as adjunct professor of educational administration, which he held until 1909 when he assumed the newly created position as Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts.  This was the role that brought Snedden to national prominence as an educational reformer.  He came in with a strong mandate to create a separate system of vocational schools in the state, following on the recommendation of the Douglas Commission, and he pursued this goal with zeal.

Snedden immediately hired his former student at Teachers College, Charles A. Prosser, as deputy commissioner for industrial education.  Like Snedden, Prosser was a former superintendent with no experience in vocational education, but that did not deter the two of them from pushing hard to establish the kind of distinctive vocational schools that Snedden had been arguing for, unburdened by the traditional baggage of general liberal education and unattached to regular high schools.  Once his career was launched by Snedden, Prosser became a leading figure in the administrative progressives, serving as the national high priest of American vocational education.  In 1912, he resigned his post in Massachusetts to become the full-time executive director of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE).  He almost single-handedly wrote the landmark federal legislation that established the aims and funding for a national system of vocational education, the Smith-Hughes Act (1917), and he served as the first executive director of the new Federal Board of Vocational Education.  He spent the remainder of his career as the director of the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, a privately funded vocational school designed to be a model for the rest of the country.[19]

As Commissioner, Snedden appointed another figure who became a national leader of the administrative progressives, Clarence Darwin Kingsley, assigning him in 1912 to be the board’s agent for high schools.  Kingsley was a mathematics teacher at the New York Manual Training School who became a leader in the New York High School Teachers Association.  He first gained national visibility as the chair of the NEA Committee of Nine on the Articulation of High School and College, and had just been selected as general chair of the NEA Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (CRSE).  Under Snedden’s direction, Kingsley had the opportunity in Massachusetts to apply some of the social efficiency ideas that eventually became embodied in the CRSE’s influential 1918 report, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.

In 1916, a year after his debate with Dewey, Snedden returned to Teachers College as a professor of vocational education and educational sociology, and he remained there until his retirement in 1935.  He had been writing and speaking about social efficiency in education during his term as Commissioner, but his productivity went up substantially upon coming back to Teachers College.  Over the course of his career, Snedden wrote 25 books.  Among his more prominent works were:  The Problem of Vocational Education (1910); Problems of Secondary Education (1917); Vocational Education (1920); Educational Sociology (1922); Foundations of Curricula (1927); What’s Wrong with American Education (1927); and Towards Better Educations (1931).  In addition, he published a large number of journal articles, at the rate of a half dozen or more per year, most often in Teachers College Record, Journal of Educational Sociology, or School and Society.  On top of this, he was a tireless speaker, who spent as many as six days a week speaking to groups of educators about vocational education, social efficiency, and the need for applying science to the construction of effective curriculum.  Most of these speeches ended up in print in one of his books or journal articles.

As the leader of the social efficiency wing of the progressive movement, Snedden exerted a powerful influence on the reform process in American education.  In part this was the result of his energetic efforts to get out the message, both in person and in print.  But his effectiveness was the result of more than his energy and productivity.  He was also remarkably well placed to exert an impact on schooling.  He had the dual credibility that came from being both an accomplished practitioner and a prolific academic.  As an experienced teacher, superintendent, and state commissioner, he could speak to other educators as a knowledgeable insider and fellow reformer in the trenches.  And as a professor at Teachers College, he occupied the most prominent pulpit in the progressive movement, both wings of which often seemed to be a wholly owned subsidiary of this institution.  Most of the notable administrative and child-centered progressives in the first half of the twentieth century either taught at TC or were educated there.  In addition, Snedden directly launched the careers of a number of leading administrative progressives, including Prosser and Kingsley, and his acolytes extended well beyond his immediate protégés because of the extensive reach of his teaching, speaking, and writing.

The Triumph of Social Efficiency Reform

Snedden’s influence came to a peak at the end of World War I, when the administrative progressives produced their two most signal accomplishments – the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 and the issuance of the Cardinal Principles report in 1918, both written by his own protégés.  The Smith-Hughes Act established vocational education as a national force in American education, with federal funding and with a clear definition of vocationalism that matched the social efficiency agenda.  As head of the industrial education organization, Prosser wrote the text of the law and ushered it through the political minefields in Washington.  Overall, there was close fit between the ideas of Snedden and Prosser and the terms of the Act.  Funds only would go to support vocational training classes, leaving states and districts to pick up the cost of general education, and half of the time in vocational classes needed to spent doing “practical work on a useful or productive basis.”[20]  Prosser immediately became the first director of the new Federal Board of Vocational Education, and in 1918 Snedden was elected president of the former NSPIE, now renamed the National Society for Vocational Education.  What a triumph for the two men most identified with this issue.

One year later, the National Education Association’s Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, which was chaired by Kingsley, issued The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.  As we saw in chapter one, the Commission took the central tenets of social efficiency and proposed them as the defining principles for all of American secondary education.  These two texts – a federal law and an educational policy document – established the dominance of the social efficiency agenda in American education.  Between them they asserted that utility and efficiency were at the heart of the school system, whose primary purpose now was to prepare people to become productive workers, which called for a curriculum that was stratified by the abilities and social trajectories of individual students.[21]

A Turning Point in Snedden’s Influence in the Social Efficiency Movement

At the moment of greatest triumph for his social efficiency agenda, David Snedden experienced first disappointment and then a gradual decline in his influence.  The Smith-Hughes Act was a very close representation of the position that he and Prosser had been taking about vocational education.  But there was one annoying way in which it strayed from the party line.  In order to gain buy-in from all of the necessary political constituencies, Prosser had to abandon the Snedden mandate for rigid separation between vocational and general education; the Act gave states discretion about whether to combine or separate administration of these two programs.  Since the text was so clear in restricting funding to the “practical work” of vocational instruction and since Prosser was the director of the federal agency running the program, this would not seem to have made much of a difference.  But still it violated Snedden’s principle of clear separation.

The Cardinal Principles Report, however, elevated the mingling of vocational and general education into a defining component of the new secondary education.  True, the report was unwavering in its support of the central ideas of social efficiency – it vocationalized the purpose of the high school and marginalized liberal education within this institution – but it came down on the wrong side of the debate about separate schools for vocational and general education.  Kingsley and the committee endorsed the principle of the differentiated comprehensive high school, in which students could pursue a variety of curriculum tracks within the same institution.

This was too much for Snedden.  In 1919 he published a response to the report in the educational journal, School and Society.  He started out with some backhanded compliments to Kingsley and the commission for their “partially successful endeavors to find valid aims for secondary education somewhere else…than in some mystic principles of ‘character,’ self-realization,’ or ‘disciplined mind’….”[22]  But then he got to the point:  “In the estimation of this writer the report almost completely misses the significance of the contemporary movement for the extension of vocational education through schools.”[23]  The problem, of course, was the fact that the report endorsed the indiscriminant mingling of vocational and liberal education in the same institution.  “Is this to be interpreted as meaning that the committee would ban all public school vocational education that could not conveniently be brought within its ‘comprehensive high school?’” he asked.[24]  He then proceeded to repeat his standard rationale for the separate vocational school aimed solely at the preparation of “efficient producers.”[25]

In his rejoinder, Kingsley restated a point that was quite apparent in the report: that the Commission was strongly in favor of encouraging vocational education and curriculum differentiation within secondary education.  But he made an interesting link between these central educational elements in the reorganized  high school and the political need for interaction between students in the different program tracks.  He quoted one line from the report that speaks to this directly:  “Above all, the greater the differentiation in studies, the more important becomes the social mingling of pupils pursuing different curriculums.”  He went on to say, “it holds that the interests of American society are best served when these vocational undertakings are conducted in schools where the public mingle freely with those in other curriculums and where the interrelations of different vocational groups find expression in the school itself.”[26]

This exchange shows the nature of the divide that emerged between Snedden and the rest of the administrative progressives with the emergence of the CRSE report and that only widened during the 1920s and 30s.  It shows Snedden as the ideologue of social efficiency, insisting on doctrinal purity beyond reason, while people like Kingsley demonstrated more sensitivity to what it would take, both politically and fiscally, actually to implement social efficiency within the American educational system.  What Kingsley and others recognized was that the rigidly separate vocational school for the rank and file was simply not going to sell in the politics of American education.  For one thing, there was the practical issue that building a separate system of vocational high schools would be prohibitively expensive when there were already high schools that could incorporate the vocational track within their programs.

More important, as Kingsley’s response to Snedden demonstrates, he and the other commission members realized that a physical separation between vocational and liberal education students would be politically untenable, since it would look too much like what Snedden explicitly wanted it to be – a way of segregating education by social class into two systems of schools, one for leaders and another for followers.  There was simply too much opposition to such an overtly undemocratic form of education, not just from liberals like John Dewey, but more consequentially from the nascent labor movement, which wanted an education that might help workers advance into the skilled crafts but was opposed to a stratified system that would block mobility out of the working class.  The vocationalized and tracked comprehensive high school was a compromise institution that both labor and the more realistic administrative progressive leaders could live with.  The way the Cardinal Principles report wove together the themes of social efficiency and democracy provided the rhetorical structure for this compromise.  It is this approach that allowed the social efficiency strand of the progressive movement to have such a lasting impact on the goals and curricular organization of American education, not Snedden’s adamant insistence on pursuing his own vision of schooling that would make the rank and file into efficient producers.

The Emergence of Snedden the Strange

By the early 1920s, Snedden was beginning to lose connection with his own movement.  Not only was Kingsley going his own way, with great success, but even the vocational educators, his most devoted following, were backing off from him.  Drost suggests that the members of the National Society for Vocational Education, who elected him president in 1918 and again in 1919, did so less as a vote of confidence in his ideas than as recognition for his past efforts on behalf of their cause.[27]  By then, they were increasingly comfortable with the CRSE’s vision, which normalized vocational education within the comprehensive high school instead of isolating it in the vocational-school ghetto.  Since Dewey’s attack, Snedden had been the object of criticism from the child-centered progressives, but now critics were emerging from educational practice as well.  In 1921, for example, a New Hampshire school trustee spoke out sharply against a tendency within school reform that he called “Sneddenism.”  “’Unskilled minds,’ he said, were being ‘crammed with knowledge of facts and processes’ when ‘trained brains’ were needed, and they alone would find a useful place in society.”[28]

If anything, the threat of marginalization spurred Snedden to ever greater feats of speech-making and publication, producing a flood of work that in retrospect made him seem not so much prolific, which he had always been, but incontinent.[29]  His central themes remained unchanged from his 1900 “rank and file” speech – this was not a man whose ideas evolved over time – but he expressed these themes in ways that became increasingly extreme and downright strange.

The first step in this direction was to take the notion of specialized vocational education into increasingly narrower channels.  In his 1920 book, Vocational Education, he argued, again in response to the Cardinal Principles report, that

From the psychological point of view there is not the slightest reason why suitably qualified persons should not, through special schools, be trained effectively for such vocations as tailoring, jewelry salesmanship, poultry farming, coal cutting, stationary engine firing, waiting on table (hotel), cutting (in shoe factory), automobile repair, teaching of French in secondary school, mule spinning, power machine operating (for ready made clothing), raisin grape growing, general farming suited to Minnesota, linotype composition, railway telegraphy, autogenous welding, street car motor driving, and a hundred others.[30]

From here he moved on to an ever more finely tuned analysis of the elements that would make up a scientifically based and educationally effective curriculum.  In the name of science and out of simple oddness, he felt compelled to develop his own terms for the elements of scientific curriculum construction.

At the highest level of curriculum planning, he proposed engaging in “strand analysis,” which would disentangle the core elements of adult life and work for curricular purposes.  “The typical farmer’s vocation is…capable of being stranded into scores, if not hundreds of operations, processes or activities that recur yearly or even daily.  Similar strandings are possible for the vocations of physician, street-car motorman, primary school teacher and the rest.”[31]  This stranding would then provide a frame for locating the basic element of the curriculum, which he called a  “lotment,” defined as “the amount of work that can be accomplished, or the ground covered, by learners of modal characteristics (as related to the activity considered) in 60 clock hours.”[32]  As an example, for “at least some of the pupils in junior high schools,” he sketched out 56 groupings of possible lotments, including “One or two lotments of ‘make-up’ projective penmanship,” “One or more development lotments of ‘appreciational’ mathematics,” “One to six lotments of “general science,” developmental,” and so on.[33]

But these units he saw as too crude to serve as more than general categories of learning.  Within the lotment was the basic building block of curriculum construction, which he called the “peth.”

The peth is in fact a ‘piece of learning’ – a piece purposely made so small that, like a brick, a bookman’s volume, a speaker’s sentence, a town lot or any other convenient unit, can be handled, studied, valued and adjusted into large composites….  For convenience of designation we may call…the amount of learning required for the word ‘foreign’ a spelling peth and the process of acquiring needed associations with ‘1776’ a peth in American history….  Learning to write the words New York’ might be taken to constitute a suitable ‘peth sized objective’ in studies of the needs and values to control in teaching handwriting.[34]

When one multiplies out the possibilities – the number of peths per lotment times the number of lotments per occupation times the number of occupational specialties – the complexity of the resulting curriculum structure is staggering.  Other administrative progressives who worked the domain of scientific curriculum-making, like W. W. Charters and John Franklin Bobbitt, also pursued this kind of reduction of curriculum to its elements, but no one took the process to the extreme of Snedden.  Is it any wonder that even the most dedicated vocational educators thought this a bit much?

The point of all this fine tuning of the curriculum machinery for Snedden was to make every student a better “socius,” someone who would play a useful role in a complex society.  And this required a careful system of classifying students according to their social and intellectual characteristics in what he called a “case group,” using criteria such geographical location, race, sex, age, intelligence, family income, and cultural background.[35]  Once this classification was complete, then the educator could determine which curricular lotments would be best suited to a particular case group.

In the early 1930s, when his career was nearing the end and his connection with the movement he had helped launch was growing more remote, he turned his attention from the increasingly depressing present toward the hopefully more promising future of education.  He wrote a book in 1931 in which he described the state of American High Schools and Vocational Schools in 1960 to an imagined group of Chinese educators who were visiting the U.S. in that year.  At that point, he saw vocational education turning into a postgraduate affair, noting that “shortly after 1930 all vestiges of supposed vocational training were withdrawn from high schools” with “specific vocational schools open only to mature learners.”[36]  His hopes for vocational training were now directed toward students over 18, and the degree of specialization he anticipated was extraordinarily high.  At the end of the book, he proudly told his Chinese visitors the “There are now about 6,500 kinds of vocational schools in the United States – that is, for that number of clearly differentiated vocations.”[37]

In other futuristic writings from this period, he speculated about the promise of social engineering through education in a way that was beyond bizarre, bordering on fascist.  He imagined a 50 years ahead, “after certain present more or less incipient developments shall have matured in approved standardized practices” and the science of education had sufficiently advanced to create the ideal society, which he sometimes called the “province of Zond.”[38]  In this new world, a mixture of educational eugenics (which he called “eudemics”), scientific curriculum directed at the appropriate case groups, and an energized system of social control showed the promise of his social efficiency vision for America.

In the poorer quarters of all large cities the department of domestic police requires those parents who, for whatever reason, can provide only defective and unwholesome environment – household and neighborhood environments – to sent their children two to eight years of age to special nursery and kindergarten schools….

The same domestic police, after presenting their cases to the proper court, also require parents of wayward or antisocial children eight to sixteen years of age to send these to special schools, the sessions of which usually last twelve hours per day, seventy-two hours per week, and fifty two weeks per year – each year including a six weeks’ summer camping season in the woods or on the seashore.[39]

In an essay in the Journal of Educational Sociology titled “The Socially Efficient Community,” he talked about fostering civic virtues (which he frequently called “civism”) in this future society.

Throughout adult years Zond expects all adult members to be especially strong in conformist civic virtues – especially to the will of the majority as formally expressed in laws, ordinances, etc.  But it keeps wide open channels for sects, parties, and other groups to educate towards collective formation of new laws, choice of new executives.  Habitual or confirmed offenders, whether willful or because of natural defect, it painlessly destroys – not as a punishment, but as “social surgery.”[40]

It’s no wonder why other administrative progressives withdrew quickly from the long association with Snedden, for fear that they would be tainted by association with his increasingly bizarre view of the world.

Why Snedden Won and Dewey Lost

So, to return to the original question about the debate between Snedden and Dewey:  How can a man like David Snedden –  “the stock pedagogue-philistine figure of modern times, half-educated, anti-intellectual, instinctively hostile to humanistic culture” and increasingly “insane,” even in the eyes of his fellow zealots in the social efficiency wing of the progressive movement – defeat the great John Dewey for the soul of the American educational system?  How could someone whose ideas proved so forgettable – or, when revived, so embarrassing – trounce the ideas of someone whose writings on education continue to be seen as a model for enlightened thinking about the relationship between school and society?

Let me break down this question into two parts.  First I explore the more general question of why the administrative progressives triumphed over the child-centered progressives in the early twentieth century by managing to stamp their social efficiency vision onto the goals and structures of American education.  Then I take up the more difficult question of how Snedden could have defeated Dewey.

How the Administrative Progressives Won

A number of scholars have written about the way progressive reform tended to follow the lead of the administrative rather than child-centered progressives.[41]  For example, Kliebard summarizes one major theme in his history of the U.S. curriculum in the progressive era by arguing that “John Dewey’s curriculum work remained largely confined to the world of ideas and had relatively little impact on school practice.”[42]  He goes on to say, “If there is a public elementary or secondary school anywhere that self-consciously or conspicuously follows even the most elemental curricular principles that Dewey set forth, then I certainly do not know of it.”[43]  Why did things turn out this way?

First, the administrative progressive message of educational utility and social efficiency had great appeal to policymakers and people in power, since it offered to answer the great social problems of the early twentieth century in a manner that was in line with their own top-down orientation and social location.  It promised to use education to promote economic productivity.  It offered a way to integrate immigrants and keep the peace in a complex industrial society through a mixture of targeted programs to promote vocational opportunity and a differentiated structure to promote social control.  And it approached this task in a classic managerial way, developing plans for administering the new era schools in a manner that could be implemented from the top down and that took the executive perspective.

Second, the administrative progressives grounded their educational proposals solidly on the authority of science.  They developed apparently objective and valid techniques for measuring ability and classifying students, and they used these measures to develop appropriate curricula and organizational structures for schools.  The language of science ran through their literature, which helped them make the case for their vision as the truly modern one, a vision of the future with credible answers to the central emerging problems of modern life.  It also helped make their approach seem data-based while making that of the child-centered progressives seem romantic.

Third, a utilitarian vision is easier to sell politically than a romantic one, especially when it comes to a large and very expensive publicly-supported institution like education.  The pedagogues talked about engaging the interest of the child, promoting a richer understanding of the world, and making a more just and democratic society, whereas the administers talked about fixing social problems and expanding the economy – and doing so in a provably effective and efficient manner.  The administrative progressives invented the vision of education as a sensible investment in the future health of economy and society, which carried the air of prudence and reason.  They offered a vision of the kind of education we need instead of the kind we might like.

Fourth, as Lagemann[44] has noted, the leader of the child-centered progressives left the field of educational practice early in the game, when Dewey abandoned his work in the lab school in Chicago in 1904 and moved to the philosophy department at Columbia.  But the administrative progressives were just that, primarily educational administrators in origin and orientation, even when they generally ended up, like Snedden, in a university school of education.  They were deeply engaged in the work of designing curriculum, developing tests, consulting with educational leaders, carrying out school surveys, and in a variety of other ways making themselves useful to educators (or at least educational administrators) in the trenches.

Fifth, their close connection to the administrative structure of schools and their deep interest in improving that structure gave the administrative progressives an important advantage in implementing their ideas.  They focused on a market of school administrators that was both receptive and empowered to serve as the troops on the ground in putting these reform ideas into educational practice.  But the child-centered progressives, with their focus primarily on teaching and learning in classrooms, had to rely on individual teachers to adopt their vision and implement it one class at a time.  Not only were teachers in a weak organizational position to bring about the Deweyan vision, but they found themselves trapped within an organizational and curricular structure of schooling that was shaped by the administrative progressive vision of social efficiency.

How Snedden Won

But even if it is understandable that the social-efficiency orientation won out in the struggle to reshape American schools, that still leaves open the question of how someone as narrow, wrong-headed, and strange as David Snedden could have been its leader and major spokesman.  The simplest way to unravel this paradox is to see Snedden’s life and work as confirmation of a sociological truism – that being there is more important than being right.  Snedden was the right man in the right place wielding the right idea for his times.

The ideas that shape history are those that history is ready for, the ones that resonate with the concerns of the time and help frame a response to these concerns.  Snedden’s career in education was launched at the turn of the twentieth century, when the United States was faced with a transition from a tradition of republican community to a new state of corporate complexity, in which the old forms of political and social organization seemed no longer adequate to the challenges of the emerging modern age.  In particular, the old system of common schooling for all, aimed at providing broad education for the citizenry of a republic, seemed increasingly out of touch with the social and economic order, with its radical division of labor, growing class and ethnic differences, and explosively expansive mode of corporate industrialism.  This was a time that was primed to be responsive to the argument that the new social order required an educational system that aimed to be useful and socially efficient in dealing with the period’s emerging social problems.  Snedden was pushing just this idea.

And during this time of social and ideological change, Snedden was also perfectly positioned to be an influential actor in the domain of educational policy and practice.  As I noted earlier, he had enormous credibility as both a practitioner and academic in education – with strong experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and state commissioner, with academic credentials from Stanford and Teachers College, and with a long-term professorship at the latter that put him at the center of the progressive movement in education and gave him instant access to the broadest audience in the field.  As we have seen, he used those advantages to the fullest extent, with his energetic efforts as a speaker, writer, and teacher to promote social efficiency as the answer to the most troubling educational issues of his day.  His memoir is titled Recollections of Over Half a Century Spent in Educational Work (1949), and as his biographer reminds us, he treated his educational efforts as work in the vocational sense of the term.  In many ways, using his own typology, he was more a producer than a utilizer, and his hard work for the social efficiency cause paid off.[45]

But even if he had the right idea at the right time, occupied the ideal leverage point, and worked hard to deploy these advantages in service to his cause, we still have to deal with his quirkiness and his growing estrangement from his own movement.  He was a self-styled scientist who never did anything that remotely resembled scientific study, an educational sociologist[46] who drew on the clichés of the field – social Darwinism and social control – without ever making an original contribution.  In his written work, he never used data and he never cited sources, which made sense since he rarely even drew on sources.  His books and journal articles took the form of proclamations, scientific pronouncements without the science; they all read like speeches, and that was likely the source of most of them.

In this sense, he was more a propagandist than a theorist or thinker, someone who borrowed ideas without understanding them and then promoted them relentlessly.  The ideas sounded authoritative and gave the impression that they were building into arguments, but they were largely a collection of numbered lists and bullet points.  He was a man who would have warmly embraced PowerPoint.  In his work, portentousness abounded; it was all about riding the wave of the future and avoiding the undertow of the past.  He was an educational leader whose effectiveness arose from being temperamentally a member of the rank and file.  He relentlessly promoted vocational education for the socially efficient society of the future by proposing curricula that routinely prepared students for the tasks that characterized the jobs of the past (railway telegrapher, streetcar motorman).  He was so eager to be relevant that he gradually made himself irrelevant even within the administrative progressive movement that he helped lead.

In essence, he was a man obsessed with an idea, one that happened to resonate with his audience, at least for a time.[47]  In Isaiah Berlin’s famous typology of thinkers, Snedden was a hedgehog, pushing one big idea, and Dewey was a fox, pursuing many ideas.[48]  When a hedgehog’s idea suits its era, he can be enormously effective; but since adaptability is not the hedgehog’s strength, the resonance with the times can quickly diminish.  That was certainly the case with Snedden.  In his debate with Snedden before the NEA in 1914, Bagley put his finger on it precisely when he called Snedden a doctrinaire.  “The field of education,” he said, “has always been peculiarly open to this type of exploitation at the hands of doctrinaires.”[49]

But one of the lessons of social change in general and educational reform in particular is that every doctrine needs its doctrinaire.  Nuance is dysfunctional for the cause of educational reform, especially early in the process, when the main task is to clear the field of the accumulated institutional underbrush and make the case for a radical new order.  Every reformer needs to slash and burn the remnants of the old way of doing things, portraying the past as all weeds and decay, and clearing space for the new institutions to take root.  This is something that a literal minded, hyperkinetic, and monomaniacal figure like Snedden could do superbly.  As Diane Ravitch noted, “Snedden’s caricature of the traditional school became a staple of progressive attacks for years to come: it was ‘repressive,’ ‘monarchical,’ ‘barren and repellent,’ founded entirely on classics and completely out of touch with American democracy.”[50]

Being extreme at this early stage of reform is quite useful, whereas the kind of nuanced approach that Dewey took, with its abhorrence of the very dualisms that Snedden loved, was not conducive to launching an effective movement of educational reform.  Therefore, the administrative progressive movement was able to become firmly established and positioned for growth because of Snedden’s flame throwing.  Put another way, a publicist, who says things that resonate with the emerging ideas of his era and helps clear the ideological way for the rhetorical reframing of a major institution, can have vastly more influence than a great thinker, who makes a nuanced and prescient argument that is out of tune with his times and too complex to fit on a battle standard.

In part because Snedden was an extremist, the tendency in American education leaned strongly his direction and away from Dewey.  What we ended up with was a school system whose structure reflected the main elements of the social efficiency agenda:  a differentiated curriculum, de facto tracking by social class, and a vocational rationale, even if vocational courses never gained more than a relatively marginal part of the curriculum.

But, although Snedden was useful in preparing the way, he quickly became dispensable and even embarrassing once the social efficiency movement got established.  The turning point was in 1918.  When the federal vocational education bill passed and the Cardinal Principles report emerged to great acclaim, Snedden’s work had been done and his doctrinaire views started to get in the way of practical gains in school systems and classrooms.  With his promotional skills and his ability to stay on message, he made it possible for administrative progressives to vocationalize American education, but his actual plan for a series of separate vocational schools with radically differentiated curricula for hundreds of different occupational roles was completely unrealistic.  It was too expensive, too complicated, and too alien to a democratic culture; and it not only barred social opportunity but it undermined social efficiency, by preventing workers from adapting to economic change (Dewey’s point) and from becoming useful in the real society of the future (as opposed to his imagined province of Zond).

Other administrative progressives, like his one-time protégé Kingsley, had a better sense of what would sell and what was possible in the realm of educational policy.  They were willing to make the compromises with democratic ideology and consumer demand that were needed in order to turn Snedden’s dream into a reality in the nation’s school systems.  They understood that it was impolitic to talk about education for the rank and file.  Better to frame the social efficiency agenda as an expression of democratic ideals; to dilute the vision of vocationalism as a way to reproduce social inequality by bringing it within the confines of the comprehensive high school.  It was possible to vocationalize the aims of American education without constructing a series of separate vocational training schools.  It was possible to implement a social efficiency agenda of sorting and selecting students by means of a high school that drew in everyone in the community but then tracked them according to ability and future trajectory.  In particular, Snedden was completely out of touch with the demands of educational consumers.  These consumers wanted nothing to do with “schools of the rank and file,” which would hold them back from the possibility of upward mobility.  In contrast, they flooded into the comprehensive high schools that came into being in response to their demand in spite of Snedden’s intense opposition.

As we saw in the previous chapter, however, it was educational consumers more than progressive reformers who mitigated the impact of the more extreme aspects of the administrative progressive creed.  Working class consumers were the ones who demanded greater access to high school; progressives just tried to figure out something socially constructive to do with them once they were enrolled.  These consumers were also the ones who first rejected Snedden’s model of the separate vocational high school, since they didn’t want to be channeled into a low level position but wanted educational access to the American dream.  And it was middle class consumers who demanded that enhanced access to high school had to be balanced by tracking the newcomers into the lower tiers of this expanding institution.  Progressives then jumped on this as an opportunity to introduce greater social efficiency into the curriculum, by sorting students according to ability and career trajectory.

The system the educational consumers and administrative progressives jointly erected in the United States in the early twentieth century was effective in part because it had stronger political cover than Snedden’s extreme version.  It introduced a vocational orientation toward education – education for social efficiency, for job skills, for economic growth, for modernism – while preserving the traditional liberal academic curriculum in a diluted form.  It tracked people by class as a matter of fact but not a matter of formal policy; it could be presented as democratic education, the way the Cardinal Principles report did, while Snedden’s was explicitly undemocratic, deliberately designing a separate education for the rank and file.  Snedden played bad cop to Kingsley’s good cop, getting out in front, catching the flack, then being pushed gradually from the scene, to be supplanted and largely forgotten by the winning version of social efficiency education.[51]

In the end, Snedden’s narrowness was his strength in advancing the cause of social efficiency in American education while also being the source of his ultimate obscurity in American thought.  Dewey suffered the inverse fate, as a man whose breadth of vision about school and society weakened his impact in his own time and place but won him long-term influence in the international realm of ideas.

Consider two implications of this analysis.  First, coarseness is an advantage in the contest of competing ideas for school reform.  Dewey’s vision of progressive education – child-centered, inquiry based, personally engaging, and socially just – is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education.  It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.

But the administrative progressive vision of education – as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future – is a weed.  It will grow almost anywhere.  Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work.  The weed of social efficiency grows under difficult conditions because its primary goal is to be useful in the narrowest sense of the term: it aims for survival rather than beauty.  But Dewey’s vision of education defines success in the richness of learning that is experienced by the child, and this is not possible without the proper cultivation.

A second implication is this:  Winning ideas for social reform disappear from view and their authors are forgotten, whereas losing ideas and their authors remain visible.  For example, one winning idea in the history of school reform is the age-graded self-contained classroom, which was a radical innovation of the common school movement in the U.S. but which quickly disappeared into the grammar of schooling to the point where it now seems to us utterly natural.  How else could school be organized?  Since it is part of the way things are, this reform’s originators and their vision are now forgotten.  The same is true with education for social efficiency.  This has become part of the common sense understanding of what education is all about, so it is now detached from its original proponents, people like Snedden and Kingsley and Prosser.  We do not identify them as authors of this vision of education any more than we identify authors of  natural laws, since these laws are not inventions but descriptions of the way things are.  It would be like asking, who invented gravity?  Meanwhile, however, losing ideas and their proponents both remain visible.

Child-centered progressivism is still standing outside the walls of the school trying to break in, so it continues to define itself in opposition to the way things are in schools, and it continues to call on Dewey’s name for support.  In some ways, then, Dewey’s undiminished prominence in the realm of educational ideas is a sign of his failure in changing American schools, and Snedden’s anonymity is a sign of his success.

References

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Church, Robert L. (1969). Sane and insane positivists. History of Education Quarterly, 9:3, 391-401.

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Cuban, Larry. 1993. How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1980, 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Drost, Walter H. (1979). Social efficiency reexamined: The Dewey-Snedden controversy. Curriculum Inquiry, 7:1 (Spring), 19-32.

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Kliebard, Herbert M. (1999). Schooled to work: Vocationalism and the American curriculum, 1876-1946. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Snedden, David. (1900). The schools of the rank and file. The Stanford Alumnus, I, 185-198.

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[1]  Rudy (1968), p. 171.

[2]  Church (1969), p. 394.

[3]  P. 157.

[4]  “It is the writer’s conviction that the most useful definition of liberal education now available is that which defines it primarily in terms of education toward higher utilization.  Man stands, to the world about him, in a twofold relationship.  He is a producer of utilities on the one hand, and on the other, for his own growth and development, he must utilize utilities.  That education which trains him to be a producer is vocational education.  That education which trains him to be a good utilizer, in the social sense of that term, is liberal education.” Snedden (1914), p. 160.

[5]  Bagley (1914), p. 162.

[6]  P. 170.

[7]  Dewey (1914/1977), p. 55.

[8]  P. 56.

[9]  Snedden (1915/1977), p. 33.

[10]  P. 34.

[11]  P. 35.

[12]  Dewey (1915/1977), pp. 38-39.  Dewey more fully developed this argument about his own vision of social efficiency in education in Democracy and Education (1916), especially in chapter nine, “Natural Development and Social Efficiency as Aims.”

[13]  Kliebard (1987), p. 149.

[14]  In Left Back, Diane Ravitch makes the same point while also identifying how Snedden fit in with other administrative progressives:  “If Edward L. Thorndike was the foremost practitioner of educational psychology, and G. Stanley Hall dominated the field of child study, David Snedden was the leading representative of the social efficiency movement.”  Ravitch (2000), p. 81.

[15]  Snedden (1949), p. 12.

[16]  Snedden (1900), pp. 23-24.

[17]  P. 24.

[18]  P. 33.

[19]  Wirth (1972).

[20]  Wirth (1972), p. 369.

[21]  In their historical essay on vocationalism, Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson argue that the consequences of this effort to vocationalize American education were profound: “In sum, vocational education served two concrete purposes – to fasten the ideal of education for vocational goals onto the educational system, and to restructure the high school.  It served to break down the common school ideology and the practice of a common education system for all pupils; after vocational education had differentiated pupils according to future occupations, other forms of differentiation – ability grouping being the most widespread – were introduced into the schools.  Testing and vocational guidance were developed in order to administer the increasingly differentiated system.  The high school of 1890 was fundamentally different from that of 1920.”  Grubb & Lazerson (1974), p. 39.

[22]  Snedden (1919), p. 519.

[23]  P. 521.

[24]  P. 523.

[25]  P. 526.

[26]  Kingsley (1919), p. 20.

[27]  Drost (1967), p. 157.

[28]  Quoted in Drost (1967), pp. 182-3.

[29]  I borrowed this line from David Brooks, who used it to describe Richard Posner.  See Brooks (2002).

[30]  Snedden (1920), p. 95.  I am grateful to Diane Ravitch for digging up this quote (Ravitch (2000), p. 85).

[31]  Snedden (1925b), pp. 287-8.

[32]  Snedden (1924), p. 741.

[33]  P. 742.

[34]  Snedden (1925a), p. 263.

[35]  Snedden (1923), p. 107.

[36]  Snedden (1931), p. 77.

[37]  P. 115; emphasis in original.  I am grateful to Phillipp Gonon for directing my attention to this late work by Snedden.

[38]  Snedden (1934), p. 138.

[39]  P. 138.

[40]  Snedden (1929), p. 469.

[41]  Kliebard (1986, 1987); Lagemann (1989); Cuban (1993); Ravitch (2000); and Zilversmit (1993).  I also explored the issue in my book about education schools (Labaree, 2004, chapter 7).

[42]  Kliebard (1987), p. 139.

[43]  P. 140.

[44]  Lagemann (1989).

[45]  His memoir continued the pattern of strangeness in his work, since he chose to write it in the third person.   (E.g., “Then came one of the turning points in David’s history” (p. 5).)   Two years before he died, the author of twenty-five books had to resort of self publication to get his memoir into print, .

[46]  In 1959, eight years after Snedden’s death, the American Sociological Society (ASS) changed its name to the American Sociological Association (ASA).  The timing was appropriate.

[47]  Kliebard puts it this way:  “Relentlessly, Snedden pursued to their most far-reaching conclusions the doctrine of social efficiency and the extension of principles of vocational education to the curriculum as a whole.  The question of his actual influence is moot; what his work illustrates is his ability not to transform or transcend the direction the curriculum was taking in his time but to articulate and epitomize it.”  Kliebard (1999), p. 122.

[48]  Berlin (2000).

[49]  Bagley (1914), p. 164.

[50]  Ravitch (2000), p. 82.

[51]  Snedden’s other major protégé in the social efficiency movement, Charles Prosser, remained as extreme as his mentor.  The vocational school he founded and ran for many years, the Dunwoody Institute, was a nutty reflection of the most doctrinaire positions he acquired from Snedden.  “At the Dunwoody Institute, units were programmed in great detail to lead students step by step though the skill development cycle.  Students punched in on time-clocks and instructors behaved like shop foremen rather than public school teachers.  A no-nonsense attitude prevailed.  If students were not punctual, orderly, and efficient, they were asked to leave.  (Wirth, 1972, p. 369)  At the end of his career, Prosser lent his name to the notorious resolution at the a federally sponsored conference on vocational education in 1945.  The Prosser Resolution ushered in the last gasp of  progressivism before it imploded in self caricature, the Life Adjustment Movement.

Posted in Academic writing, Scholarship, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #1: Excessive Signposting

One of the most characteristic and annoying tendencies in academic writing is the excessive use of signposting: here’s what I’m going to do, here I am doing it, and here’s what I just did.  You can trim a lot of text from your next paper (and earn the gratitude of your readers) by just telling your story instead of continually anticipating this story.

Here is a lovely take-down of an academic author who made the mistake of getting on Geoff Dyer’s nerves.  Enjoy.  The original from the New York Times.

New York Times

July 22, 2011

An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece

By GEOFF DYER

In this column I want to look at a not uncommon way of writing and structuring books. This approach, I will argue, involves the writer announcing at the outset what he or she will be doing in the pages that follow. The default format of academic research papers and textbooks, it serves the dual purpose of enabling the reader to skip to the bits that are of particular interest and — in keeping with the prerogatives of scholarship — preventing an authorial personality from intruding on the material being presented. But what happens when this basically plodding method seeps so deeply into a writer’s makeup as to constitute a stylistic signature, even a kind of ongoing flourish or extravagance?

Before continuing I will say something here about how I was drawn to this area of research. In the course of writing an article about the photographer Thomas Struth, I remembered that the highly regarded art historian Michael Fried had a chapter on Struth in his book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (2008), henceforth WP. I’d read only a little of Fried before, but I knew that his earlier “Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot” (1980) was regularly referred to and quoted by art historians. I will show later that one of those art historians is Fried himself, but as soon as I started to consult WP I realized I was reading something quite extraordinary: a masterpiece of its kind in that it takes the style of perpetual announcement of what is about to happen to extremes of deferment that have never been seen before. Imminence here becomes immanent.

I’ll come to the rest of the book later. Here I will simply remark that the first page of Fried’s introduction summarizes what he intends to do and ends with a summary of this summary: “This is what I have tried to do in ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.’ ” The second page begins with another look ahead: “The basic idea behind what follows. . . . ” Fair enough, that’s what introductions are for, and it’s no bad thing to be reassured that the way in which the overall argument will manifest itself “in individual cases will become clear in the course of this book.” Page 3 begins: “The organization of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is as follows. . . . ” Well, O.K. again, even if it is a bit like watching a rolling news program: Coming up on CNN . . . A look ahead to what’s coming up on CNN. . . . More striking is the way that even though we have only just got going — even though, strictly speaking, we have not got going — Fried is already looking back (Previously on “NYPD Blue” . . . ) on what he did in such earlier books as “Art and Objecthood” and “Absorption and Theatricality.” The present book will not be like those earlier ones, however, “as the reader of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is about to discover.”

What the reader discovers, however, is that Fried will continue to announce what he’s about to do right to the end: “Later on in this book I shall examine . . . ”; “I shall discuss both of these after considering . . . ”; “I shall also be relating. . . . ” Fried’s brilliance, however, is that in spite of all the time spent looking ahead and harking back he also — and it’s this that I want to emphasize here — finds the time to tell you what he’s doing now, as he’s doing it: “But again I ask . . . ” ; “Let me try to clarify matters by noting . . . ”; “What I want to call attention to. . . . ” But that’s not all: the touch of genius is that on top of everything else he somehow manages to tell you what he is not doing (“I am not claiming that . . . ”), what he has not done (“What I have not said . . . ”) and what he is not going to do (“This is not the place for . . . ”). On occasions he combines several of these tropes in dazzling permutations like the negative-­implied-­forward and the double-­backward — “So far I have said nothing in this conclusion about Barthes’s ‘Camera Lucida,’ which in Chapter 4 I interpreted as a consistently antitheatrical text even as I also suggested . . . ” — before reverting, a paragraph later, to the tense endeavor of the present (i.e., telling us what he’s still got to do): “One further aspect of Barthes’s text remains to be dealt with.” There is, I would observe here, a kind of zero-sum perfection about the way the theatricality of the flamboyant, future-­oriented sign-­posting is matched by all the retrospection. The depths of self-­absorption that makes this possible are hard to fathom.

It could be argued that this is essentially an academic habit, and that Fried is faithfully observing the expected conventions — so faithfully that he has become an unconscious apostate. If academia elevates scholarly and impersonal inquiry above the kind of nutty, fictional, navel-gazing monologues of Nicholson Baker, then Fried is at once its high camp apotheosis and its disintegration into mere manner.

Lest you think I have been quoting unfairly, take a break here and run your eyes over a couple of pages of WP in a library or bookstore. You’ll be amazed. You’ll see that this is some of the most self-­worshiping — or, more accurately, self-­serving — prose ever written. I kept wondering why an editor had not scribbled “get on with it!” in huge red letters on every page of the manuscript — and then I realized that the cumulative flimflam was the it! And at that moment, as I hope to show, everything changed.

Suppose that you meet someone who is a compulsive name-­dropper. At first it’s irritating, then it’s boring. Once you have identified it as a defining characteristic, however, you long for the individual concerned to manifest this trait at every opportunity — whereupon it becomes a source of hilarity and delight. And so, having experienced a crescendo of frustration, I now look forward to a new book in which Fried advances his habit of recessive deferral to the extent that he doesn’t get round to what he wants to say until after the book is finished, until it’s time to start the next one (which will be spent entirely on looking back on what was said in the previous volume). At that point he will cross the border from criticism to the creation of a real work of art (fiction if you will) called “Kiss Marks on the Mirror: Why Michael Fried Matters as a Writer Even More Than He Did Before.”

Geoff Dyer is the author, most recently, of “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1989-2010.” His “Reading Life” column will appear regularly in the Book Review.

 

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, Teacher education, Teaching

Targeting Teachers

In this piece, I explore a major problem I have with recent educational policy discourse — the way we have turned teachers from the heroes of the public school story to its villains.  If students are failing, we now hear, it is the fault of teachers.  This targeting of teachers employs a new form of educational firepower, value-added measures.  I show how this measure misses the mark by profoundly misunderstanding the nature of teaching as a professional practice, which has the following core characteristics:

  • Teaching is hard

    • Teachers depend on their students for the professional success

    • Students are conscripts in the classroom

    • Teachers need to develop a complex teacher persona in order to manage their relationship with students

    • Teachers need to carry out their practice  under conditions of high uncertainty

  • Teaching looks easy

    • It looks like an extension of child raising

    • It is widely familiar to anyone who has been a student

    • The knowledge and skills that teachers teach are ones that most competent adults have

    • Unlike any other professionals, teachers give away their expertise instead of renting it to the client, so success means your students no longer need you

  • Teachers are an easy target

    • Teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite

    • They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions — so no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise

This piece originally appeared in Dissent in 2011.  Here’s a link to the original.

 

Targeting Teachers

David F. Labaree

The mantra of the current school reform movement in the U.S. is that high quality teachers produce high achieving students.  As a result, we should hold teachers accountable for student outcomes, offering the most effective teachers bonus pay and shoving the least effective ones out the door.  Of course, in order to implement such a policy you need a valid and reliable measure of teacher quality, and the reformers have zeroed in on one such measure, which is known as the value-added approach.  According to this method, you calculate the effectiveness of individual teachers by the increase in test scores that students demonstrate after a year in their classroom.

Propelling this trend forward is a flood of research purporting to show that differences in teacher quality can lead to huge differences in the outcomes of schooling, both for students and for society.  For example, in a 2010 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Eric Hanushek argues that a strong teacher by the value-added measure (one standard deviation above the mean) might raise the lifetime earnings of a student by $20,000.  From this perspective, improving the quality of teaching promises to increase individual opportunity for the disadvantaged, which will reduce social inequality, and at the same time to increase human capital, which will promote economic growth and national competitiveness.  Sounds great.  Of course, this calculation is based on the assumption that test scores measure the economically useful knowledge of the future worker, which is far from obvious.  But arguments like these provide a big incentive to generate actionable data on who’s a good teacher and who’s not.

All of this makes the current effort to develop a simple and statistically sound measure for good teaching quite understandable.  But that doesn’t make it justifiable.  The problem with this approach is that teaching is in fact an extraordinarily complex and demanding form of professional practice, whose quality is impossible to capture accurately in a simple metric.  The push to develop such a metric threatens to reduce good teaching – and good education – to whatever produces higher scores on a standardized test.  As a result, the value-added measure of teacher quality may end up promoting both the wrong kind of teaching and the wrong kind of schooling.

In this article, I explore three major questions that arise from this development.  Why did the value-added measure of teaching emerge at this point in the history of American education?  What are the core characteristics of teaching as a professional practice that makes it so hard to perform effectively and so hard to measure accurately?  And under these circumstances, what are the likely consequences of using the value-added measure of teaching?

Roots of the Value-Added Measure of Teacher Quality

Until the last 30 years, Americans have been comfortable measuring the effectiveness of their schools by their broad social outcomes.  As long as graduates have tended to find jobs at a higher level than the jobs their parents had, then schools must be effectively promoting social opportunity.  And as long as the economy has been growing in size and productivity, then schools must be effectively producing human capital and spurring economic prosperity.  Under these circumstances, which lasted from the emergence of the common school in the early 19th century until the 1980s, there was little reason to seek out hard data about how much students were actually learning in school.

In the 1980s, however, this began to change with the emergence of a new kind of educational reform movement, which focused on raising the standards for student achievement.  Starting with the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, the idea was to set strict curriculum standards and enforce them with high-stakes tests in order to shore up the American economy with higher achievement.  Then came the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, which required schools to demonstrate that they were distributing educational and social opportunity more equally.

This radical shift to measuring learning outcomes in schooling came about in the late 20th century because of two converging changes in the politics of education: growing fiscal constraints and growing educational inequality.  For one thing, the rising cost of financing the expansion of schooling was beginning to run into severe fiscal limits.  By the end of the 20th century, state and local governments in the United States were spending about 30 percent of their total budgets on education, at an aggregate cost of about $400 billion.  Exacerbating this cost rise was the rise in educational level of the population.  From 1900 to 1975 the average education level of a 24 year-old rose from 8 years of elementary school to two years of college.  The problem is that the per-student cost of education is markedly higher as you move up the system, from elementary to secondary to college to graduate school.  As a result, schools at all levels came under pressure to demonstrate that they were producing learning outcomes that would justify the cost.

At the same time, a parallel concern emerged about radical differences in educational quality and outcomes for different groups in the population, sharply undercutting the hoary fiction that all high school or college diplomas were the same.  Middle class parents have long shown an acute awareness of this distinction and have had the means to pursue the best schools for their children.  Parents with more limited resources, however, have been stuck with their local schools, which were too often dirty, dangerous, and dysfunctional.

Under these circumstances, value-added measures of education have obvious value in potentially helping us zero in on the contribution that a school makes to the educational and social outcomes of its students.  The value-added approach seeks to take into account the educational achievement of students coming into a school or a classroom, in order to measure what added contribution the school or teacher makes to student achievement.  By controlling for the selection effect, this technique seeks to focus on the school’s socialization effect.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has plunged $355 million into the effort to measure teacher effectiveness.  Grounded in the value-added approach, this effort is using analysis of videos of teaching in individual classrooms to establish which teacher behaviors are most strongly associated with the highest value-added scores for students.  And the Brookings Institution published a study in 2010 that provided support for the value-added approach.  But, as Kevin Welner points out in the previous issue of Dissent, the evidence for the validity of the Gates value-added measures is weak.  In a recently published review, economist Jesse Rothstein from University of California, Berkeley performed an analysis of Gates data, which shows that 40 percent of teachers whose performance placed them in the bottom quartile using the value-added measure scored in the top half by an alternative measure of student achievement.  In short, the value-added approach is hardly the gold standard for measuring teacher effectiveness that its supporters claim it is.

Why This Measure Misses the Mark

So far I’ve been explaining where this new measure of teaching effectiveness came from and why it emerged when it did.  But I haven’t addressed why it fails to capture the elements of good teaching and why school reformers are so willing to deploy it anyway in formulating school policy.

The nature of American teaching arose from the structure of the American school system that was established before the Civil War, a system whose primary mission was political.  Founders wanted these schools to solve the core problem of a liberal democracy: to reconcile the self-interested pursuit of personal advantage demanded by a market economy with the civic commitment to community required by a republic.  In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, this problem was particularly acute, since the market was expanding at an extraordinary clip and the republic was young and fragile.  The idea was to create community schools that would instill republican principles in the young while also giving them a shared experience that might ameliorate growing class divisions.  To accommodate the huge influx of students, and to provide a setting in which students could be taught as a group and ranked by ability, they established the self-contained classroom, graded by age.  And to make sure that the school community was inclusive, they gradually made school attendance compulsory.

From this structure, emerge three core characteristics of teaching in the U.S.:    Teaching is hard; teaching looks easy; and teachers are an easy target.  Let me say a little about each.

Teaching Is Hard

In many ways, teaching is the most difficult of professions.  In other professions, professional success lies in the skills and knowledge of the practitioner and outcomes are relatively predictable.  Not so with teaching.  Why?

Teachers Depend on Students for their Success:  Teachers can only be successful if students choose to learn.  This is the core problem facing every teacher every day in every classroom.  Surgeons operate on clients who are unconscious; lawyers represent clients who remain mute; but teachers need to find a way to motivate students to learn the curriculum.  The teacher’s knowledge of the subject and skill at explaining this knowledge amount to nothing if students choose not to learn what they’re taught.  Student resistance to learning can come from a wide variety of sources.  Maybe students don’t like the subject or the teacher.  Maybe they don’t want to be in school at all.  Maybe they’re distracted by fear of a bully, hunger in the belly, or lust for the student in the next seat.  Maybe they’re bored to death.  The reasons for not learning are endless, and the teacher’s job is to find a way to understand these reasons and work around them, one student at a time.

What makes this even more difficult is that the teacher’s task extends beyond just getting students to learn the subject.  Teaching is a people-changing profession.  Education involves more than acquiring knowledge, since we ask it to take students and turn them into something else:  law abiding citizens, productive workers, ambitious achievers.  Changing people’s behavior and attitude and character and cultural yearnings is a lot harder than fixing a technical problem within the human body.  A surgeon can remove a diseased appendix, a physician can prescribe a pill to cure an infection.  But teaching is less like these highly esteemed and technically advanced arenas of medicine and more like the less prestigious and less certain practice of psychotherapy.  For therapists, the problem is getting patients to abandon a set of practices that they are unwilling or unable to manage on their own – like countering negative thoughts or calming anxiety.  Changing people in these nether realms of medicine is very difficult, but these practitioners do enjoy one advantage:  the patient approaches the therapist asking for help in making the change.  But this is not the case with teachers, where students enter class under duress.

Students Are Conscripts in the Classroom:  Students are in the classroom for a variety of reasons that often have nothing to do with wanting to learn.  They are compelled by strong pressures from their parents, the job market, cultural norms, and truant officers.  Also all of their friends are there, so what would they do if they stayed home?  Except for the rare case, however, one thing that does not bring them to the classroom is a burning desire to learn the formal curriculum.  As a result, unlike the clients of nearly all other professionals, they are not volunteers asking for a professional service but conscripts who have little reason to cooperate with, much less actively pursue, the process of learning that teachers are trying to facilitate.

The problem is that teachers don’t have much ability to impose their will on students in order to make them learn.  They have weak disciplinary tools, they are vastly outnumbered, and they have to deal with their students behind the doors of the self contained classroom, without the help of colleagues.  In the end, all that strict discipline can achieve is to maintain classroom order; inducing learning is another thing entirely.  The result is that teachers have to develop a complex mechanism for motivating their students to learn.

Teachers Need to Develop a Teaching Persona to Manage the Relationship with Their Students:  Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum.  And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona.  That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities.  You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you.  You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded “teacher look.”  You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter infectious, so they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.

Constructing such a persona is a complex task, which takes years of development.  It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona has fallen in place and becomes second nature.  The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this.  The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands – the grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students – and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests.  It can’t be an obvious disguise, since students have an eye toward the fake and place high value on authenticity, and since it has to be maintained day in and day out over the years of a teaching career.  So the persona has to be a mix of who you are as a person and what you need and want to be as a teacher.

When it all comes together, it’s a marvel to behold.  In his book Small Victories, Samuel Freedman provides a vivid portrait of the teaching persona of a New York high school English teacher named Jessica Siegel.  She wears eye-catching clothing (one student asks, “Miss Siegel, do you water that dress?”), moves effortlessly between captivating and controlling her students, making wisecracks out of the corner of her mouth (“Gimme a break.”).  He calls this persona The Tough Cookie.  That works for her, but all successful teachers need to find their own right persona.  Think about it:  How can you measure this?  Measurement is particularly difficult because the criteria for defining a successful professional performance are up in the air.

Teachers Need to Carry Out Their Practices Under Conditions of High Uncertainty:  The problem is that there is no definitive code for effective teaching practice to parallel the kinds of codes that exist in other professions.  In general, professionals can defend themselves against malpractice by demonstrating that they were following standard professional practice.  The patient died but the physician was doing her job appropriately.  Teaching has no guide for optimal professional standards.  Instead there are rules about minimum criteria of acceptable behavior:  Don’t hit kids, show up for class.

One reason for the absence of such a code of professional practice for teachers is that, as I have been showing, the task of teaching involves the effort to manage a complex process of motivating learning in your students through the construction of a unique teaching persona.  Another is the problem of trying to identify what constitutes a definitive measure of teaching success.  The things that are easiest to measure are the most trivial:  number of right answers on a Friday quiz, a homework assignment, or – I might add – what’s represented in value-added test scores.  These things may show something about what information students retained at that point, but they don’t say anything about the long-term benefits of the class on these students.  Did the teacher make students better citizens, more productive workers, life-long learners, innovative entrepreneurs?  These are the outcomes we care about, but how can you measure them?  Even if you could find a way to measure such outcomes later in life, how could you trace back the impact that the student’s fourth grade teacher had on those outcomes?

This suggests another problem that raises the uncertainty of defining good teaching.  As a society, we are not of one mind about what individual and social ends we want schools to produce.  If we can’t agree on ends, how can we determine if a teacher was effective or not?  Effective at what?  One goal running through the history of American schooling is to create good citizens.  Another is to create productive workers.  A third is to provide individuals with social opportunity.  These goals lead schools in conflicting directions, and teachers can’t accomplish them all with the same methods.

One final form of uncertainty facing teachers is that we can’t even agree on who is the teacher’s client.  In some ways the client is the student, who is the object of education.  But students don’t contract with teachers to carry out their role, school boards do, as representatives of the community as a whole, which would make them the client.  But then there are the parents, a third constituency for teachers to deal with and try to please.  Are teachers the agents of the child, the society that sets up the school system, or the parents who send their children to school?  The answer is yes.

Teaching Looks Easy

So teaching is very hard, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to construct a good measure of effective teaching.  But at the same time, in the eyes of the public, teaching doesn’t look that hard at all.  And this makes us easy targets for anyone selling a simple mechanism for distinguishing the good teacher from the bad.

One reason teaching looks easy is that it seems to be an extension of child-raising.  You don’t need professional training to be a parent, which means that being a teacher doesn’t seem like a big thing.  Students coming into teacher education programs are often already imbued with this spirit.  I care for the kids, so I’ll be a good teacher.

Another reason it looks easy is that teaching is extremely familiar.  Every prospective teacher – every adult – has done a 12-year apprenticeship of observation in the elementary and secondary classroom.  We have watched teachers, up close and personal, during our formative years, and nothing about the practice of teaching seems obscure or complicated.  You keep order, give out and collect assignments, talk, test, and take the summer off.  No big deal.  Missing from this observation, of course, is all the thinking and planning that goes into the process that students experience in the classroom, much less the laborious construction of the teaching persona.

A third thing that makes teaching look easy is that the knowledge and skills teachers convey are the knowledge and skills that all competent adults have.  This isn’t the kind of complex and obscure knowledge you find in medical texts or law books; it’s ordinary knowledge that doesn’t seem to require an advanced degree of skill for the practitioner.  Of course, missing from this kind of understanding of teaching is an acknowledgement of the kind of skill required to teach these subjects and motivate students to learn these subjects, which is not obvious at all.  But the impression of ordinariness is hard for teaching to shake.

A factor that enhances this problem is that, unlike other professionals, teachers give away their expertise.  One test of a successful teacher is that the student no longer needs her.  Good teachers make themselves dispensable.  In contrast, other professions don’t give away their expertise; they rent it by the hour.  You have to keep going back to the doctor, lawyer, accountant, and even pharmacist.  In these arenas, you’re never on your own.  But teachers are supposed to launch you into adult life and then disappear into the background.  As a result, it is easy for adults to forget how hard it was for them to acquire the skills and knowledge they now have and therefore easy to discount the critical role that teachers played in getting them to their current state.

Teachers Are an Easy Target

It’s tough being in a profession that is extraordinarily difficult to practice effectively and that other people consider a walk on the beach.  As a group, teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite.  They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions.  As a result, no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise.  Teachers, school administrators, and education professors have all had the experience of sitting next to someone on an airplane or at a dinner party who proceeds to tell them what the problem with schools is and also what the cure is.  Everyone is an expert on education except the educator.

One consequence of this is that teachers become an easy target for school reformers.  This follows from the nature of teaching as a practice, as I’ve been describing here, and also from the nature of school reform as a practice.  The history of school reform in the United States is a history of efforts to change the education of Other People’s Children.  The schools that reformers’ own children attend tend to be seen as pretty good; the problem is with the schooling of Others.  It’s those kids who need more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their learning up to a useful level.  They are the ones who are dragging down our cities and holding back our economic growth.  And public school teachers are the keepers of Other People’s Children.  Since we don’t think those children are getting the kind of schooling they need, then teachers must be a major part of the problem.  As a result, these teachers too are seen as needing more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their teaching up to a socially useful level.

We tell ourselves that we’re paying more than we can afford for schools that don’t work, so we have to intervene.  The value-added measure of teacher performance is ideally suited to this task.  It’s needed because, in the eyes of reformers, teachers are not sufficiently professional, competent, or reliable to be granted the autonomy of a real profession.  And what will be the consequences?

As in medicine, the first rule of school reform should be: At least, do no harm.  But the value-added intervention violates this rule, driven by the arrogance of reformers who are convinced that teaching is a simple process of delivering content and that learning is just a matter of exerting the effort to acquire this content.  That approach is likely to increase test scores, simply by pressuring teachers to teach to the test.  But my concern is that in the process it’s also likely to interfere with teachers’ ability to lure students into learning.  This requires them to develop and nurture an effective teacher persona, so they can in turn develop and nurture in students the motivation to learn and to continue learning over a lifetime.

As usual, the results of this reform are likely to be skewed by social class.  Schools for the disadvantaged are going to be under great pressure to teach to the test and raise scores on core skills, while schools for the advantaged will be free to pursue a much richer curriculum.  If your children, unlike Others’, are not At Risk, then the schools they attend will not need to be obsessed with drilling to meet minimum standards.  Teachers in these schools will be able to lead their classes in exploring a variety of subjects, experiences, and issues that will be excluded from the classrooms farther down the social scale.  In the effort to raise standards and close the achievement gap, we will creating just another form of educational distinction to divide the top from the bottom.

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, Uncategorized

The Dysfunctional Pursuit of Relevance in Educational Research

In this paper, I explore the issue of relevance in educational research.  I argue that the chronic efforts by researchers to pursue relevance is counterproductive.  Paradoxically, trying to make research more relevant actually makes it less so.  Drawing on an analysis by Mie Augier and Jim March, I show that this is the result of two factors.  One is that there is a profound ambiguity about what education is supposed to accomplish.  What’s relevant for one goal may be irrelevant for another.  Another factor is that the stress on relevance creates a kind of myopia. The researcher is focusing tightly on a particular set of conditions in time and place, which will likely change by the time the study is published.  Better to step back and see the larger picture in order to figure out what this case is a case of.

This paper originally appeared in Educational Researcher in 2008.  Here’s a link to the original text.

The Dysfunctional Pursuit of Relevance in Educational Research

David F. Labaree

In the title of her paper, Jacquelien A. Bulterman-Bos (2008) asks, “Will a Clinical Approach Make Educational Research More Relevant for Practice?” and by the end she comes to the answer, “Yes.”  Overall this is an engaging effort to sort out the nature of educational research and understand its relationship to the practice of teaching.  During the course of this discussion, the author draws on my analysis of the transition that teachers undergo when they enter doctoral programs on the road to becoming researchers – a shift in worldview from the normative to the analytical, from the personal to the intellectual, from the particular to the universal, and from the experiential to the theoretical (Labaree, 2003).  She argues that this depiction of the differences between teaching and doing research is only useful up to a point, because it is grounded in a discredited Cartesian conception of the split between body and mind.  Drawing on Michael Polanyi, she argues that knowledge is not full bodied and useful unless it remains connected to the real world of education, where knowledge necessarily retains within it elements that are normative, personal, particularistic, and experiential.  Therefore, she asserts, educational research needs to be grounded in teaching practice if it is going to be able to represent the context of practice effectively.  This means that educational researchers need to spend years as teachers before becoming researchers, and they need to remain active as classroom teachers during their time doing research.  Such a clinical approach to educational research will produce a form of knowledge about education that is both more valid as a representation of education and more useful to practitioners.

Bulterman-Bos raises the kinds of issues about the aims and meanings of research that scholars in any field should be discussing, and such a discussion is particularly pertinent in a professional field like education, where policymakers, practitioners, funding agencies, and citizens routinely ask how research can help improve the profession.  I welcome her effort to clarify the issues surrounding the relevance of educational research, and I appreciate the opportunity to join in this discussion; but I find that I profoundly disagree with her analysis.  My disagreement operates at three levels of abstraction, starting with a quibble about her interpretation of my own earlier argument about the differences in how teachers and researchers view the educational enterprise and then moving on to much more basic concerns about the nature of scholarly research and the meaning of relevance.

First, although her paper in general represents the argument in my paper accurately, it does introduce a subtle distortion of my account of the teacher-researcher split.  In my paper I acknowledge that, by laying out the polar differences in the orientations of teacher and researcher so starkly, I risk overstating the difference between the two modes of work.  I note that researchers in their own practice also demonstrate elements of the normative, personal, particularistic, and experiential; likewise teachers show elements of the contrasting orientations.  The difference, I argue, is not the function of a mind-body dichotomy but a matter of emphasis, the result of a division of educational labor structured by the institutional settings, occupational constraints, daily work demands, and professional incentives of each realm of practice.  Teachers are primarily engaged in a practice of social improvement, grounded in personal relationships with particular students embedded in time and place, and the professional knowledge they build is largely an accumulation of clinical experiences.  Educational researchers are primarily engaged in a practice of social analysis, grounded in intellectual conceptions of education generalized across contexts, and the professional knowledge they build is largely a web of theories.  The different conditions of work lead to different modes of professional practice and different ways of thinking about education.

This leads to a second broader point, that the way to deal with these differences in orientation is not to combine the two in a single role – clinical researcher – which perfectly balances these elements, but to acknowledge and honor the different zones of expertise and to promote a fruitful dialogue between practitioners in the two zones.  It seems neither practical nor necessary for all researchers to split their time between school teaching and educational research in order to establish the power and credibility of the research knowledge they produce.  A differential allocation of functions between teachers and researchers seems fruitful for both professions, as long as the barrier is relatively low and the conversation across the barrier is ongoing.  Universities are not eager to pay scholars to teach school, and school districts are not eager to pay teachers to do research, so it is hard to see how such a hybrid occupational role can become institutionalized.  And the skills involved in being an expert researcher or teacher are so strikingly different that it would be difficult for individuals to achieve mastery in both at the same time.  Each requires immersion in a particular institutional setting, fluency in a distinctive professional culture, and full engagement in a complex set of professional practices.

According to Bulterman-Bos, these differences in perspective between researchers and teachers are highly dysfunctional, leading to invalid research and ineffective teaching; but I see these differences as carrying great potential value.  To teachers – immersed in a web of pedagogical goals, social contexts, and instructional relationships – research can offer a way to gain perspective on their realm of practice, holding up a theoretical mirror that allows them to see what is unique and what is commonplace in their classroom setting.  To researchers – afloat in the intellectualized and decontextualized realm of educational theory – the classroom can offer a way to gain grounding in the personal and particular world of teaching and learning in schools, providing professional problems to spur theory development and providing clinical settings for testing theory.  Both stand to gain from the interaction, since each side provides what the other is lacking.  The answer, I suggest, is not to resolve this tension by merging the two roles but to take advantage of the tension by using it to enrich both modes of professional practice.

I want to advance this argument another notch by making a third, more fundamental point:  It is counterproductive to press educational research – or, for that matter, any other form of research – to be relevant.  One problem is that relevance is a tricky quality to define, since it is easier to recognize in retrospect than in prospect.  A related problem is that earnest efforts to make research more relevant can paradoxically make it useless or even harmful, by focusing on short term results that are narrowly measured instead of on consequences with a longer horizon and broader scope.

But to argue against the press for relevance is not to say that educational research should be irrelevant.  Research in general draws inspiration from real world problems, and this is particularly true in professional schools, where scholars feel the need to study issues that arise from problems of practice in their professional arena.  In his book exploring the issue of research relevance, Donald Stokes (1997) called this sector of research activity “Pasteur’s quadrant.”  He categorizes research according to the degree that its aim is to pursue fundamental understanding or to respond to pressing problems, and by this metric he locates Niels Bohr in the first category (pure basic research), Thomas Edison in the second (pure applied research), and Louis Pasteur in both (use-inspired basic research).  I argue that scholarly research justifies itself primarily by its contribution to theory, sometimes inspired by immediate social needs (like Pasteur) and sometimes not (like Bohr), and this applies to a professional field like education as much as to a scholarly discipline.  If we as educational researchers fail to contribute to theory with our research, then we are less scholars than engineers or product developers.  Theory development frequently leads to product development, as the relationship between universities and the technology industry has demonstrated so dramatically in the last half century, but the distinctive value of scholarly research dissipates quickly when it segues from being use-inspired to use-driven.  And this is what happens with the press for relevance.

Mie Augier and James G. March (2007) have written a persuasive account of how the drive to make research relevant can render it less so.  Their focus is on the research produced and education provided by business schools, but their arguments apply with equal validity to the field of education.  In both domains, there is a strong professional constituency asking professional schools to prove their usefulness by solving problems and serving the needs of practitioners.  The problem is that this urge to be useful often turns counterproductive.  Augier and March identify two key factors that undermine the relevance of research trying too hard to be relevant: ambiguity and myopia.

Ambiguity comes from the difficulty in trying to define what constitutes relevance for research.  Presumably, educational research is relevant if it has some kind of clear connection to issues and problems in the field of educational practice, particularly if it promises to be useful to practitioners who are trying to deal with these issues and resolve these problems.  But this begs the question, useful to whom and for what?  Think of the wide array of actors involved in education:  teachers, students, principals, and parents; test makers, textbook publishers, and educational technology producers; curriculum developers, superintendents, and school board members; policymakers, politicians, and educational bureaucrats; teacher educators and education school deans.  What might make research useful for some of these might at the same time make it useless for others.  Relevance is in the eye of the beholder.  In addition, research may be useful for helping to accomplish some educational ends but not others.  Studies that seem relevant to people who are trying to raise test scores may not be at all relevant for those who are trying to improve critical thinking, enhance civic commitment, increase skills in mathematical analysis, promote gender equity, reduce the racial achievement gap, increase graduation rates, or enhance human capital production.  These studies may not even seem helpful to people trying to raise student scores on other tests.  In fact, what is helpful in attaining one goal may be harmful in attaining another, which, for example, is the argument made by proponents of critical thinking about the effect of efforts to raise test scores.  Almost any bit of educational research is likely to be seen as more or less useful for some actor concerned about some education-related goal, while simultaneously being seen as useless or harmful by most actors for most purposes.  Under these circumstances, it is trivial to call research relevant or irrelevant, since it all depends on the peculiar mix of actors and goals.

But the problem of the inherent ambiguity of relevant research feeds into the more fundamental problem of its genetic predisposition toward myopia.  Relevance is not only a function of person and purpose but also of place and time.  As Bulterman-Bos and I have both argued, teaching and learning in schools is highly particularized and contextualized.  This makes the relevance of research hard to establish across contexts.  Studies that may be seen as useful in teaching and learning for one student – or subject matter or ethnic group or classroom or grade level or school or school district or state or country – may not be seen as useful in other settings.  Likewise, what makes research useful at one point in time may make it useless or misleading at another.  The knowledge may be so time sensitive that its usefulness expires quickly.  And knowledge that is helpful in meeting an educational goal in the present (say, to improve engagement in a science lesson) may undermine a goal whose accomplishment cannot be measured until decades later (say, to improve science understanding in the workforce).

Augier and March call this tendency myopia in order to call attention to a potentially pathological consequence of the effort to make research relevant:  it may lead to educational knowledge that is short-sighted.  When educational researchers seek to make their work relevant, they feel the need to tailor their work to the demands of educational practice in the present time and the local place (or the location of the intended client-consumer).  The problem is that this work, even if it is helpful in that particular context is not likely to be useful in the conditions of educational practice that exist a few miles away or a few months in the future.  Conversely, research that seems like an abstract exercise in theory building at one time and place may become highly relevant for practical purposes that were unforeseeable at the point when the work was done.  Bohr’s work on quantum mechanics is a good case in point.

In this sense, then, applied research may grow stale quickly while basic research may age well.  Scholarly work that neither arises from a quest for relevance nor demonstrates any particular utility at the time it is carried out may turn out to be highly useful at a later time and in a different place.  Research relevance, therefore, is not only hard to define, but the active pursuit of it may produce educational knowledge that is irrelevant.

References

Augier, Mie & March, James G.  (2007).  The pursuit of relevance in management education. California Management Review, 49:3 (Spring), 129-146.

Bulterman-Bos, Jacquelien A. (2008).  Will a clinical approach make educational research more relevant for practice?  Educational Researcher.

Labaree, David F. (2003). The peculiar problems of preparing and becoming educational researchers. Educational Researcher, 32:4 (May), 13-22.

Stokes, Donald E.  (1997). Pasteur’s quadrant: Basic science and technological innovation. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, History of education

Do No Harm

This is a piece I wrote about the harm that educational research has inflicted over the years.  Given a track record of making things worse for school and society, educational researchers would do well to heed the wisdom in the Hippocratic Oath.  If our work often fails to make things better, we should at least strive to do no harm.

The paper first appeared in Teacher Education and Practice in 2011.  Here’s a link to the original.

 

Do No Harm

David F. Labaree

Education is a field of dreams and so is educational research.  As educators, we dream of schools that can improve the lives of students, solve social problems, and enrich the quality of life; and as educational researchers, we dream that our studies will enhance the effectiveness of schools in achieving these worthy goals.  Both fields draw recruits who see the possibilities of education as a force for doing good, and that turns out to be a problem, because the history of both fields shows that the chances for doing real harm are substantial.  Over the years, research on teaching and teacher education – the topic of the discussion in this special issue – has caused a lot of damage to teaching and learning and learning-to-teach in schools.  So I suggest a good principle to adopt when considering the role of research in teacher education is a version of the Hippocratic Oath:  First do no harm.

The history of educational research in the United States in the twentieth century supports a pessimistic assessment of the field’s impact on American school and society.  There was Edward L. Thorndike, whose work emphasized the importance of differentiating the curriculum in order to provide the skills and knowledge that students would later need in playing sharply different roles in a stratified workforce.  There was David Snedden, who labored tirelessly to promote narrowly vocational training for that large group of students who would end up serving in what he called “the rank and file.”  There were the kingpins of educational testing, such as Lewis Terman, who developed instruments that allowed educators to measure student ability and student learning, which in turn helped determine which track students should occupy and what role they should play in later life.  Put together, these kinds of enormously productive educational researchers helped build a system of schooling that emphasized sorting over learning and promoted a vision of teaching that emphasized the delivery of curriculum over the engagement of students.  They laid the foundation for the current machinery of curriculum standards and high-stakes testing that has turned American teaching into a machinery for raising test scores.

Of course, these educational researchers usually did not intend to do harm.  (Snedden is the exception here, a man who was on a mission to dumb down schooling for the lower classes.)  For the most part, they saw making curriculum more scientific and intelligence testing more accurate as ways to allow individuals with merit to escape from the clutches of their social origins.  Like most educational researchers, they were optimists about the possible impact of their work.  But their examples should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers who see their work as an unmitigated exercise in human improvement.

One factor in particular tends to bend the work of researchers toward the dark side of the force, and that is research funding.  Very few government agencies and foundations are eager to support basic research in education.  Instead, funding aligns with the latest educational policy objectives, and to get funded researchers need to demonstrate that their work will in some manner serve these objectives.  That is not to say that the researchers necessarily support these policy missions, but in order to win the grant they do have to harness their work, at least rhetorically, to the aims that motivate the request for proposals.  In the current global policy climate, that means the work needs to address issues around accountability and standards and improving test scores.  If you cannot spin your work in this direction, you will have trouble getting funded.

Another factor that interferes with the educational researcher’s desire to do good for teachers and teacher educators is the need to confront an educational version of Gresham’s Law:  Bad research tends to displace good.  The best research is complex, and this puts the researcher at a competitive disadvantage, since policymakers and teacher educators prefer results that are definitive and easy to understand.  The most sophisticated work we produce tends to show an educational reality that has a complex array of elements interacting within a fiendishly complex organizational structure, which means that research findings have be carefully qualified to the point where it is nearly impossible to say with clarity that a particular form of educational practice is effective or ineffective.  Instead, we have to report that it all depends.  In addition, in order to understand the research findings in any depth, you need to be able to sort through issues of design, methodology, and validity that are only accessible to experts in the field.

Meanwhile, there is a vast array of research available to policymakers and practitioners that supports clear answers to educational problems and does so in a manner that is easy for the layperson to comprehend.  This kind of work comes from two kinds of groups: think tanks, and entrepreneurial organizations for the delivery of education.  Think tanks removes a key element of complexity from the research process by deciding in advance what the politically desirable policy is and then conducting studies that provide clear support for that policy.  In the U.S. there are also a variety of non-governmental organizations that are active in promoting and delivering a particular brand of educational service, such as Teach For America (TFA, with its alternative to traditional teacher preparation) and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP, with its alternative approach to running schools in low income neighborhoods).  These organizations commission research that conveniently demonstrates the effectiveness of what they do.  And both types of research producers are particularly effective at marketing their findings to the relevant actors in the policy and education communities.

University based educational research cannot compete with these other producers in clarity and understandability, but they can undercut the impact of this work a bit by doing what university researchers have always been good at.  We have an advantage in being the only group without a dog in the policy hunt, which allows us to perform credible fundamental research about how schools work, how teaching and learning happens, and how teachers learn to teach.  Work like this can help show how simplistic and politically biased these other research products really are.  And it won’t do much harm.

Posted in Educational Research, History, Scholarship, Sociology

Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation”

Today I’m posting Max Weber’s classic piece on “Science as a Vocation.”  It was originally delivered as a speech at Munich University in 1918.  Its relevance for scholars today is as great as it was then, asking these questions:

  • What does it mean to be a scientist?

  • What are the sources and limits of scientific authority?

  • What responsibility do scientists have for how their work is used?

Consider the context in which he was speaking — at the end of the Great War, in which German scientific prowess helped drive the most destructive conflict in history.  And think about the role that academic research serves today as the engine of social policy and the driver of technological change.

Below are some key points that arise in the lecture and some issues you might want to consider while reading it:

Science can clarify choices but it can’t make them for you

  • It can’t resolve value disputes or guide the most important decisions, which necessarily are about values and goals not about technical issues of what works

  • It can’t answer Tolstoy’s question: “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

Is science rational?

  • Yes

    • Internally, that’s its hallmark: rigorous rationality, applied in a systematic method of establishing knowledge on valid evidence

  • No

    • It’s built on unprovable suppositions

      • That the pursuit of scientific knowledge is worthwhile

      • That rationalizing the world is a socially valuable, morally worthy pursuit

      • That science is beneficial to society

    • Careerism: the irrationality of science as a form of work, where interest trumps reason

    • Also it’s infused with inspiration, zeal, passion, intoxication, intuition, play

Weber’s view of his own role as scientist

  • Ambivalent, ironic, tragic – a sense of being trapped in a grid of rationalization

  • The logic of being a scientist means

    • putting on blinders

    • specializing

    • zealously rationalizing and disenchanting the world

    • He loves science, he’s bound to reason, unwilling to turn to religious faith

  • But he’s concerned about the consequences of rationalization

    • Rationalization is our greatest accomplishment

    • It’s also our prison

Key quotes from the lecture:

  • “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations….”

  • “To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice‘ — that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him.”

Quote from the end The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

  • “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.  In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”

The best you can do as a scientist is to:

  • Do it right; be true to your scientific craft, pursue the formal rational ideal; employ the very highest standards of research method

  • Know your limits, develop a sense of humility

  • Recognize that you may be wrong

  • Recognized that you can’t know how your research will be used

  • Don’t make claims for what you don’t know

  • Don’t use scientific authority to support policy positions that are inherently value laden, goal-directed, political

 

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”

‘Wissenschaft als Beruf,’ from Gesammlte Aufsaetze zur Wissenschaftslehre (Tubingen, 1922), pp. 524‐55.

Originally delivered as a speech at Munich University, 1918.

Published in 1919 by Duncker & Humblodt, Munich.

You wish me to speak about ‘Science as a Vocation.’ Now, we political economists have a pedantic custom, which I should like to follow, of always beginning with the external conditions. In this case, we begin with the question: What are the conditions of science as a vocation in the material sense of the term? Today this question means, practically and essentially: What are the prospects of a graduate student who is resolved to dedicate himself professionally to science in university life? In order to understand the peculiarity of German conditions it is expedient to proceed by comparison and to realize the conditions abroad. In this respect, the United States stands in the sharpest contrast with Germany, so we shall focus upon that country.

Everybody knows that in Germany the career of the young man who is dedicated to science normally begins with the position of Privatdozent. After having conversed with and received the consent of the respective specialists, he takes up residence on the basis of a book and, usually, a rather formal examination before the faculty of the university. Then he gives a course of lectures without receiving any salary other than the lecture fees of his students. It is up to him to determine, within his venia legendi, the topics upon which he lectures.

In the United States the academic career usually begins in quite a different manner, namely, by employment as an ‘assistant.’ This is similar to the great institutes of the natural science and medical faculties in Germany, where usually only a fraction of the assistants try to habilitate themselves as Privatdozenten and often only later in their career.

Practically, this contrast means that the career of the academic man in Germany is generally based upon plutocratic prerequisites. For it is extremely hazardous for a young scholar without funds to expose himself to the conditions of the academic career. He must be able to endure this condition for at least a number of years without knowing whether he will have the opportunity to move into a position which pays well enough for maintenance.

In the United States, where the bureaucratic system exists, the young academic man is paid from the very beginning. To be sure, his salary is modest; usually it is hardly as much as the wages of a semi‐skilled laborer. Yet he begins with a seemingly secure position, for he draws a fixed salary. As a rule, however, notice may be given to him just as with German assistants, and frequently he definitely has to face this should he not come up to expectations.

These expectations are such that the young academic in America must draw large crowds of students. This cannot happen to a German docent; once one has him, one cannot get rid of him. To be sure, he cannot raise any ‘claims.’ But he has the understandable notion that after years of work he has a sort of moral right to expect some consideration. He also expects ‐‐ and this is often quite important ‐‐ that one have some regard for him when the question of the possible habilitation of other Privatdozenten comes up.

Whether, in principle, one should habilitate every scholar who is qualified or whether one should consider enrollments, and hence give the existing staff a monopoly to teach ‐‐ that is an awkward dilemma. It is associated with the dual aspect of the academic profession, which we shall discuss presently. In general, one decides in favor of the second alternative. But this increases the danger that the respective full professor, however conscientious he is, will prefer his own disciples. If I may speak of my personal attitude, I must say I have followed the principle that a scholar promoted by me must legitimize and habilitate himself with somebody else at another university. But the result has been that one of my best disciples has been turned down at another university because nobody there believed this to be the reason.

A further difference between Germany and the United States is that in Germany the Privatdozent generally teaches fewer courses than he wishes. According to his formal right, he can give any course in his field. But to do so would be considered an improper lack of consideration for the older docents. As a rule, the full professor gives the ‘big’ courses and the docent confines himself to secondary ones. The advantage of these arrangements is that during his youth the academic man is free to do scientific work, although this restriction of the opportunity to teach is somewhat involuntary.

In America, the arrangement is different in principle. Precisely during the early years of his career the assistant is absolutely overburdened just because he is paid. In a department of German, for instance, the full professor will give a three‐hour course on Goethe and that is enough, whereas the young assistant is happy if, besides the drill in the German language, his twelve weekly teaching hours include assignments of, say, Uhland. The officials prescribe the curriculum, and in this the assistant is just as dependent as the institute assistant in Germany.

Of late we can observe distinctly that the German universities in the broad fields of science develop in the direction of the American system. The large institutes of medicine or natural science are ‘state capitalist’ enterprises, which cannot be managed without very considerable funds. Here we encounter the same condition that is found wherever capitalist enterprise comes into operation: the ‘separation of the worker from his means of production.’ The worker, that is, the assistant, is dependent upon the implements that the state puts at his disposal; hence he is just as dependent upon the head of the institute as is the employee in a factory upon the management. For, subjectively and in good faith, the director believes that this institute is ‘his,’ and he manages its affairs. Thus the assistant’s position is often as precarious as is that of any ‘quasi‐proletarian’ existence and just as precarious as the position of the assistant in the American university.

In very important respects German university life is being Americanized, as is German life in general. This development, I am convinced, will engulf those disciplines in which the craftsman personally owns the tools, essentially the library, as is still the case to a large extent in my own field. This development corresponds entirely to what happened to the artisan of the past and it is now fully under way.

As with all capitalist and at the same time bureaucratized enterprises, there are indubitable advantages in all this. But the ‘spirit’ that rules in these affairs is different from the historical atmosphere of the German university. An extraordinarily wide gulf, externally and internally, exists between the chief of these large, capitalist, university enterprises and the usual full professor of the old style. This contrast also holds for the inner attitude, a matter that I shall not go into here. Inwardly as well as externally, the old university constitution has become fictitious. What has remained and what has been essentially increased is a factor peculiar to the university career: the question whether or not such a Privatdozent, and still more an assistant, will ever succeed in moving into the position of a full professor or even become the head of an institute. That is simply a hazard. Certainly, chance does not rule alone, but it rules to an unusually high degree. I know of hardly any career on earth where chance plays such a role. I may say so all the more since I personally owe it to some mere accidents that during my very early years I was appointed to a full professorship in a discipline in which men of my generation undoubtedly had achieved more that I had. And, indeed, I fancy, on the basis of this experience, that I have a sharp eye for the undeserved fate of the many whom accident has cast in the opposite direction and who within this selective apparatus in spite of all their ability do not attain the positions that are due them.

The fact that hazard rather than ability plays so large a role is not alone or even predominantly owing to the ‘human, all too human’ factors, which naturally occur in the process of academic selection as in any other selection. It would be unfair to hold the personal inferiority of faculty members or educational ministries responsible for the fact that so many mediocrities undoubtedly play an eminent role at the universities. The predominance of mediocrity is rather due to the laws of human co‐operation, especially of the co‐operation of several bodies, and, in this case, co‐operation of the faculties who recommend and of the ministries of education.

A counterpart are the events at the papal elections, which can be traced over many centuries and which are the most important controllable examples of a selection of the same nature as the academic selection. The cardinal who is said to be the ‘favorite’ only rarely has a chance to win out. The rule is rather that the Number Two cardinal or the Number Three wins out. The same holds for the President of the United States. Only exceptionally does the first‐rate and most prominent man get the nomination of the convention. Mostly the Number Two and often the Number Three men are nominated and later run for election. The Americans have already formed technical sociological terms for these categories, and it would be quite interesting to enquire into the laws of selection by a collective will by studying these examples, but we shall not do so here. Yet these laws also hold for the collegiate bodies of German universities, and one must not be surprised at the frequent mistakes that are made, but rather at the number of correct appointments, the proportion of which, in spite of all, is very considerable. Only where parliaments, as in some countries, or monarchs, as in Germany thus far (both work out in the same way), or revolutionary power‐holders, as in Germany now, intervene for political reasons in academic selections, can one be certain that convenient mediocrities or strainers will have  the opportunities all to themselves.

No university teacher likes to be reminded of discussions of appointments, for they are seldom agreeable. And yet I may say that in the numerous cases known to me there was, without exception, the good will to allow purely objective reasons to be decisive.

One must be clear about another thing: that the decision over academic fates is so largely a ‘hazard’ is not merely because of the insufficiency of the selection by the collective formation of will. Every young man who feels called to scholarship has to realize clearly that the task before him has a double aspect. He must qualify not only as a scholar but also as a teacher. And the two do not at all coincide. One can be a preeminent scholar and at the same time an abominably poor teacher. May I remind you of the teaching of men like Helmholtz or Ranke; and they are not by any chance rare exceptions.

Now, matters are such that German universities, especially the small universities, are engaged in a most ridiculous competition for enrollments. The landlords of rooming houses in university cities celebrate the advent of the thousandth student by a festival, and they would love to celebrate Number Two Thousand by a torchlight procession. The interest in fees ‐‐ and one should openly admit it ‐‐ is affected by appointments in the neighboring fields that ‘draw crowds.’ And quite apart from this, the number of students enrolled is a test of qualification, which may be grasped in terms of numbers, whereas the qualification for scholarship is imponderable and, precisely with audacious innovators, often debatable ‐- that is only natural. Almost everybody thus is affected by the suggestion of the immeasurable blessing and value of large enrollments. To say of a docent that he is a poor teacher is usually to pronounce an academic sentence of death, even if he is the foremost scholar in the world. And the question whether he is a good or a poor teacher is answered by the enrollments with which the students condescendingly honor him.

It is a fact that whether or not the students flock to a teacher is determined in large measure, larger than one would believe possible, by purely external things: temperament and even the inflection of his voice. After rather extensive experience and sober reflection, I have a deep distrust of courses that draw crowds, however unavoidable they may be. Democracy should be used only where it is in place. Scientific training, as we are held to practice it in accordance with the tradition of German universities, is the affair of an intellectual aristocracy, and we should not hide this from ourselves. To be sure, it is true that to present scientific problems in such a manner that an untutored but receptive mind can understand them and ‐‐ what for us is alone decisive ‐‐ can come to think about them independently is perhaps the most difficult pedagogical task of all. But whether this task is or is not realized is not decided by enrollment figures. And ‐‐ to return to our theme ‐‐ this very art is a personal gift and by no means coincides with the scientific qualifications of the scholar.

In contrast to France, Germany has no corporate body of ‘immortals’ in science. According to German tradition, the universities shall do justice to the demands both of research and of instruction. Whether the abilities for both are found together in a man is a matter of absolute chance. Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If the young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza. But one must ask every other man: Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally, one always receives the answer: ‘Of course, I live only for my “calling.” ‘ Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.

This much I deem necessary to say about the external conditions of the academic man’s vocation. But I believe that actually you wish to hear of something else, namely, of the inward calling for science. In our time, the internal situation, in contrast to the organization of science as a vocation, is first of all conditioned by the facts that science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and that this will forever remain the case. Not only externally, but inwardly, matters stand at a point where the individual can acquire the sure consciousness of achieving something truly perfect in the field of science only in case he is a strict specialist.

All work that overlaps neighboring fields, such as we occasionally undertake and which the sociologists must necessarily undertake again and again, is burdened with the resigned realization that at best one provides the specialist with useful questions upon which he would not so easily hit from his own specialized point of view. One’s own work must inevitably remain highly imperfect. Only by strict specialization can the scientific worker become fully conscious, for once and perhaps never again in his lifetime,that he has achieved something that will endure. A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment. And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak, and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science. He will never have what one may call the ‘personal experience’ of science. Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider; without this passion, this ‘thousands of years must pass before you enter into life and thousands more wait in silence’ ‐‐ according to whether or not you succeed in making this conjecture; without this, you have no calling for science and you should do something else. For nothing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion.

Yet it is a fact that no amount of such enthusiasm, however sincere and profound it may be, can compel a problem to yield scientific results. Certainly enthusiasm is a prerequisite of the ‘inspiration’ which is decisive. Nowadays in circles of youth there is a widespread notion that science has become a problem in calculation, fabricated in laboratories or statistical filing systems just as ‘in a factory,’ a calculation involving only the cool intellect and not one’s ‘heart and soul.’ First of all one must say that such comments lack all clarity about what goes on in a factory or in a laboratory. In both some idea has to occur to someone’s mind, and it has to be a correct idea, if one is to accomplish anything worthwhile. And such intuition cannot be forced. It has nothing to do with any cold calculation. Certainly calculation is also an indispensable prerequisite. No sociologist, for instance, should think himself too good, even in his old age, to make tens of thousands of quite trivial computations in his head and perhaps for months at a time. One cannot with impunity try to transfer this task entirely to mechanical assistants if one wishes to figure something, even though the final result is often small indeed. But if no ‘idea’ occurs to his mind about the direction of his computations and, during his computations, about the bearing of the emergent single results, then even this small result will not be yielded.

Normally such an ‘idea’ is prepared only on the soil of very hard work, but certainly this is not always the case. Scientifically, a dilettante’s idea may have the very same or even a greater bearing for science than that of a specialist. Many of our very best hypotheses and insights are due precisely to dilettantes. The dilettante differs from the expert, as Helmholtz has said of Robert Mayer, only in that he lacks a firm and reliable work procedure. Consequently he is usually not in the position to control, to estimate, or to exploit the idea in its bearings. The idea is not a substitute for work; and work, in turn, cannot substitute for or compel an idea, just as little as enthusiasm can. Both, enthusiasm and work, and above all both of them jointly, can entice the idea.

Ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us. The best ideas do indeed occur to one’s mind in the way in which Ihering describes it: when smoking a cigar on the sofa; or as Helmholtz states of himself with scientific exactitude: when taking a walk on a slowly ascending street; or in a similar way. In any case, ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.

However this may be, the scientific worker has to take into his bargain the risk that enters into all scientific work: Does an ‘idea’ occur or does it not? He may be an excellent worker and yet never have had any valuable idea of his own. It is a grave error to believe that this is so only in science, and that things, for instance, in a business office are different from a laboratory. A merchant or a big industrialist without ‘business imagination,’ that is, without ideas or ideal intuitions, will for all his life remain a man who would better have remained a clerk or a technical official. He will never be truly creative in organization. Inspiration in the field of science by no means plays any greater role, as academic conceit fancies, than it does in the field of mastering problems of practical life by a modern entrepreneur. On the other hand, and this also is often misconstrued, inspiration plays no less a role in science than it does in the realm of art. It is a childish notion to think that a mathematician attains any scientifically valuable results by sitting at his desk with a ruler, calculating machines or other mechanical means. The mathematical imagination of a Weierstrass is naturally quite differently oriented in meaning and result than is the imagination of an artist, and differs basically in quality. But the psychological processes do not differ. Both are frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s ‘mania’) and ‘inspiration.’

Now, whether we have scientific inspiration depends upon destinies that are hidden from us, and besides upon ‘gifts.’ Last but not least, because of this indubitable truth, a very understandable attitude has become popular, especially among youth, and has put them in the service of idols whose cult today occupies a broad place on all street corners and in all periodicals. These idols are ‘personality’ and ‘personal experience.’ Both are intimately connected, the notion prevails that the latter constitutes the former and belongs to it.

People belabor themselves in trying to ‘experience’ life ‐‐ for that befits a personality, conscious of its rank and station. And if we do not succeed in ‘experiencing’ life, we must at least pretend to have this gift of grace. Formerly we called this ‘experience,’ in plain German, ‘sensation’; and I believe that we then had a more adequate idea of what personality is and what it signifies.

Ladies and gentlemen. In the field of science only he who is devoted solely to the work at hand has ‘personality.’ And this holds not only for the field of science; we know of no great artist who has ever done anything but serve his work and only his work. As far as his art is concerned, even with a personality of Goethe’s rank, it has been detrimental to take the liberty of trying to make his ‘life’ into a work of art. And even if one doubts this, one has to be a Goethe in order to dare permit oneself such liberty. Everybody will admit at least this much: that even with a man like Goethe, who appears once in a thousand years, this liberty did not go unpaid for. In politics matters are not different, but we shall not discuss that today. In the field of science, however, the man who makes himself the impresario of the subject to which he should be devoted, and steps upon the stage and seeks to legitimate himself through ‘experience,’ asking: How can I prove that I am something other than a mere ‘specialist’ and how can I manage to say something in form or in content that nobody else has ever said? ‐‐ such a man is no ‘personality.’ Today such conduct is a crowd phenomenon, and it always makes a petty impression and debases the one who is thus concerned. Instead of this, an inner devotion to the task, and that alone, should lift the scientist to the height and dignity of the subject he pretends to serve. And in this it is not different with the artist.

In contrast with these preconditions which scientific work shares with art, science has a fate that profoundly distinguishes it from artistic work. Scientific work is chained to the course of progress; whereas in the realm of art there is no progress in the same sense. It is not true that the work of art of a period that has worked out new technical means, or, for instance, the laws of perspective, stands therefore artistically higher than a work of art devoid of all knowledge of those means and laws‐‐if its form does justice to the material, that is, if its object has been chosen and formed so that it could be artistically mastered without applying those conditions and means. A work of art, which is genuine ‘fulfilment,’ is never surpassed; it will never be antiquated. Individuals may differ in appreciating the personal significance of works of art, but no one will ever be able to say of such a work that it is ‘outstripped by another work which is also ‘fulfilment.’

In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted in a quite specific sense, as compared with other spheres of culture for which in general the same holds. Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated. Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact. Scientific works certainly can last as ‘gratifications’ because of their artistic quality, or they may remain important as a means of training. Yet they will be surpassed scientifically ‐‐ let that be repeated ‐‐ for it is our common fate and, more, our common goal. We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have. In principle, this progress goes on ad infinitum. And with this we come to inquire into the meaning of science. For, after all, it is not self‐evident that something subordinate to such a law is sensible and meaningful in itself. Why does one engage in doing something that in reality never comes, and never can come, to an end?

One does it, first, for purely practical, in the broader sense of the word, for technical, purposes: in order to be able to orient our practical activities to the expectations that scientific experience places at our disposal. Good. Yet this has meaning only to practitioners. What is the attitude of the academic man towards his vocation ‐‐ that is, if he is at all in quest of such a personal attitude? He maintains that he engages in ‘science for science’s sake’ and not merely because others, by exploiting science, bring about commercial or technical success and can better feed, dress, illuminate, and govern. But what does he who allows himself to be integrated into this specialized organization, running on ad infinitum, hope to accomplish that is significant in these productions that are always destined to be outdated? This question requires a few general considerations.

Scientific progress is a fraction, the most important fraction, of the process of intellectualization which we have been undergoing for thousands of years and which nowadays is usually judged in such an extremely negative way. Let us first clarify what this intellectualist rationalization, created by science and by scientifically oriented technology, means practically.

Does it mean that we, today, for instance, everyone sitting in this hall, have a greater knowledge of the conditions of life under which we exist than has an American Indian or a Hottentot? Hardly. Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may ‘count’ on the behavior of the streetcar, and he orients his conduct according to this expectation; but he knows nothing about what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows incomparably more about his tools. When we spend money today I bet that even if there are colleagues of political economy here in the hall, almost every one of them will hold a different answer in readiness to the question: How does it happen that one can buy something for money ‐‐ sometimes more and sometimes less? The savage knows what he does in order to get his daily food and which institutions serve him in this pursuit. The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives.

It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means.

Now, this process of disenchantment, which has continued to exist in Occidental culture for millennia, and, in general, this ‘progress,’ to which science belongs as a link and motive force, do they have any meanings that go beyond the purely practical and technical? You will find this question raised in the most principled form in the works of Leo Tolstoy. He came to raise the question in a peculiar way. All his broodings increasingly revolved around the problem of whether or not death is a meaningful phenomenon. And his answer was: for civilized man death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no man who comes to die stands upon the peak that lies in infinity. Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness. Throughout his late novels one meets with this thought as the keynote of the Tolstoyan art.

What stand should one take? Has ‘progress’ as such a recognizable meaning that goes beyond the technical, so that to serve it is a meaningful vocation? The question must be raised. But this is no longer merely the question of man’s calling for science, hence, the problem of what science as a vocation means to its devoted disciples. To raise this question is to ask for the vocation of science within the total life of humanity. What is the value of science?

Here the contrast between the past and the present is tremendous. You will recall the wonderful image at the beginning of the seventh book of Plato’s Republic: those enchained cavemen whose faces are turned toward the stonewall before them. Behind them lies the source of the light which they cannot see. They are concerned only with the shadowy images that this light throws upon the wall, and they seek to fathom their interrelations. Finally one of them succeeds in shattering his fetters, turns around, and sees the sun. Blinded, he gropes about and stammers of what he saw. The others say he is raving. But gradually he learns to behold the light, and then his task is to descend to the cavemen and to lead them to the light. He is the philosopher; the sun, however, is the truth of science, which alone seizes not upon illusions and shadows but upon the true being.

Well, who today views science in such a manner? Today youth feels rather the reverse: the intellectual constructions of science constitute an unreal realm of artificial abstractions, which with their bony hands seek to grasp the blood‐and‐the‐sap of true life without ever catching up with it. But here in life, in what for Plato was the play of shadows on the walls of the cave, genuine reality is pulsating; and the rest are derivatives of life, lifeless ghosts, and nothing else. How did this change come about?

Plato’s passionate enthusiasm in The Republic must, in the last analysis, be explained by the fact that for the first time the concept, one of the great tools of all scientific knowledge, had been consciously discovered. Socrates had discovered it in its bearing. He was not the only man in the world to discover it. In India one finds the beginnings of a logic that is quite similar to that of Aristotle’s. But nowhere else do we find this realization of the significance of the concept. In Greece, for the first time, appeared a handy means by which one could put the logical screws upon somebody so that he could not come out without admitting either that he knew nothing or that this and nothing else was truth, the eternal truth that never would vanish as the doings of the blind men vanish. That was the tremendous experience that dawned upon the disciples of Socrates. And from this it seemed to follow that if one only found the right concept of the beautiful, the good, or, for instance, of bravery, of the soul ‐‐ or whatever ‐‐ that then one could also grasp its true being. And this, in turn, seemed to open the way for knowing and for teaching how to act rightly in life and, above all, how to act as a citizen of the state; for this question was everything to the Hellenic man, whose thinking was political throughout. And for these reasons one engaged in science.

The second great tool of scientific work, the rational experiment, made its appearance at the side of this discovery of the Hellenic spirit during the Renaissance period. The experiment is a means of reliably controlling experience. Without it, present‐day empirical science would be impossible. There were experiments earlier; for instance, in India physiological experiments were made in the service of ascetic yoga technique; in Hellenic antiquity, mathematical experiments were made for purposes of war technology; and in the Middle Ages, for purposes of mining. But to raise the experiment to a principle of research was the achievement of the Renaissance. They were the great innovators in art, who were the pioneers of experiment. Leonardo and his like and, above all, the sixteenth‐century experimenters in music with their experimental pianos were characteristic. From these circles the experiment entered science, especially through Galileo, and it entered theory through Bacon; and then it was taken over by the various exact disciplines of the continental universities, first of all those of Italy and then those of the Netherlands.

What did science mean to these men who stood at the threshold of modern times? To artistic experimenters of the type of Leonardo and the musical innovators, science meant the path to true art, and that meant for them the path to true nature. Art was to be raised to the rank of a science, and this meant at the same time and above all to raise the artist to the rank of the doctor, socially and with reference to the meaning of his life. This is the ambition on which, for instance, Leonardo’s sketchbook was based. And today? ‘Science as the way to nature’ would sound like blasphemy to youth. Today, youth proclaims the opposite: redemption from the intellectualism of science in order to return to one’s own nature and therewith to nature in general. Science as a way to art? Here no criticism is even needed.

But during the period of the rise of the exact sciences one expected a great deal more. If you recall Swammerdam’s statement, ‘Here I bring you the proof of God’s providence in the anatomy of a louse,’ you will see what the scientific worker, influenced (indirectly) by Protestantism and Puritanism, conceived to be his task: to show the path to God. People no longer found this path among the philosophers, with their concepts and deductions. All pietist theology of the time, above all Spener, knew that God was not to be found along the road by which the Middle Ages had sought him. God is hidden, His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. In the exact sciences, however, where one could physically grasp His works, one hoped to come upon the traces of what He planned for the world. And today? Who ‐‐ aside from certain big children who are indeed found in the natural sciences ‐‐ still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world? If there is any such ‘meaning,’ along what road could one come upon its tracks? If these natural sciences lead to anything in this way, they are apt to make the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe die out at its very roots.

 

And finally, science as a way ‘to God’? Science, this specifically irreligious power? That science today is irreligious no one will doubt in his innermost being, even if he will not admit it to himself. Redemption from the rationalism and intellectualism of science is the fundamental presupposition of living in union with the divine. This, or something similar in meaning, is one of the fundamental watchwords one hears among German youth, whose feelings are attuned to religion or who crave religious experiences. They crave not only religious experience but experience as such. The only thing that is strange is the method that is now followed: the spheres of the irrational, the only spheres that intellectualism has not yet touched, are now raised into consciousness and put under its lens. For in practice this is where the modern intellectualist form of romantic irrationalism leads. This method of emancipation from intellectualism may well bring about the very opposite of what those who take to it conceive as its goal.

After Nietzsche’s devastating criticism of those ‘last men’ who ‘invented happiness,’ I may leave aside altogether the naive optimism in which science ‐‐ that is, the technique of mastering life which rests upon science ‐‐ has been celebrated as the way to happiness. Who believes in this? ‐‐ aside from a few big children in university chairs or editorial offices. Let us resume our argument.

Under these internal presuppositions, what is the meaning of science as a vocation, now after all these former illusions, the ‘way to true being,’ the ‘way to true art,’ the ‘way to true nature,’ the ‘way to true God,’ the ‘way to true happiness,’ have been dispelled? Tolstoy has given the simplest answer, with the words: ‘Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable. The only question that remains is the sense in which science gives ‘no’ answer, and whether or not science might yet be of some use to the one who puts the question correctly.

Today one usually speaks of science as ‘free from presuppositions.’ Is there such a thing? It depends upon what one understands thereby. All scientific work presupposes that the rules of logic and method are valid; these are the general foundations of our orientation in the world; and, at least for our special question, these presuppositions are the least problematic aspect of science. Science further presupposes that what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is ‘worth being known.’ In this, obviously, are contained all our problems. For this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific means. It can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning, which we must reject or accept according to our ultimate position towards life.

Furthermore, the nature of the relationship of scientific work and its presuppositions varies widely according to their structure. The natural sciences, for instance, physics, chemistry, and astronomy, presuppose as self‐evident that it is worthwhile to know the ultimate laws of cosmic events as far as science can construe them. This is the case not only because with such knowledge one can attain technical results but for its own sake, if the quest for such knowledge is to be a ‘vocation.’ Yet this presupposition can by no means be proved. And still less can it be proved that the existence of the world which these sciences describe is worth while, that it has any ‘meaning,’ or that it makes sense to live in such a world. Science does not ask for the answers to such questions.

Consider modern medicine, a practical technology that is highly developed scientifically. The general ‘presupposition’ of the medical enterprise is stated trivially in the assertion that medical science has the task of maintaining life as such and of diminishing suffering as such to the greatest possible degree. Yet this is problematical. By his means the medical man preserves the life of the mortally ill man, even if the patient implores us to relieve him of life, even if his relatives, to whom his life is worthless and to whom the costs of maintaining his worthless life grow unbearable, grant his redemption from suffering. Perhaps a poor lunatic is involved, whose relatives, whether they admit it or not, wish and must wish for his death. Yet the presuppositions of medicine, and the penal code, prevent the physician from relinquishing his therapeutic efforts. Whether life is worthwhile living and when‐‐this question is not asked by medicine. Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.

Consider a discipline such as aesthetics. The fact that there are works of art is given for aesthetics. It seeks to find out under what conditions this fact exists, but it does not raise the question whether or not the realm of art is perhaps a realm of diabolical grandeur, a realm of this world, and therefore, in its core, hostile to God and, in its innermost and aristocratic spirit, hostile to the brotherhood of man. Hence, aesthetics does not ask whether there should be works of art.

Consider jurisprudence. It establishes what is valid according to the rules of juristic thought, which is partly bound by logically compelling and partly by conventionally given schemata. Juridical thought holds when certain legal rules and certain methods of interpretations are recognized as binding. Whether there should be law and whether one should establish just these rules‐‐such questions jurisprudence does not answer. It can only state: If one wishes this result, according to the norms of our legal thought, this legal rule is the appropriate means of attaining it.

Consider the historical and cultural sciences. They teach us how to understand and interpret political, artistic, literary, and social phenomena in terms of their origins. But they give us no answer to the question of whether the existence of these cultural phenomena have been and are worthwhile. And they do not answer the further question, whether it is worth the effort required to know them. They presuppose that there is an interest in partaking, through this procedure, of the community of ‘civilized men.’ But they cannot prove ‘scientifically’ that this is the case; and that they presuppose this interest by no means proves that it goes without saying. In fact it is not at all self‐evident.

Finally, let us consider the disciplines close to me: sociology, history, economics, political science, and those types of cultural philosophy that make it their task’ to interpret these sciences. It is said, and I agree, that politics is out of place in the lecture‐room. It does not belong there on the part of the students. If, for instance, in the lecture‐room of my former colleague Dietrich Schafer in Berlin, pacifist students were to surround his desk and make an uproar, I should deplore it just as much as I should deplore the uproar which anti‐ pacifist students are said to have made against Professor Forster, whose views in many ways are as remote as could be from mine. Neither does politics, however, belong in the lecture‐room on the part of the docents. And when the docent is scientifically concerned with politics, it belongs there least of all.

To take a practical political stand is one thing, and to analyze political structures and party positions is another. When speaking in a political meeting about democracy, one does not hide one’s personal standpoint; indeed, to come out clearly and take a stand is one’s damned duty. The words one uses in such a meeting are not means of scientific analysis but means of canvassing votes and winning over others. They are not plowshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought; they are swords against the enemies: such words are weapons. It would be an outrage, however, to use words in this fashion in a lecture or in the lecture‐room. If, for instance, ‘democracy’ is under discussion, one considers its various forms, analyzes them in the way they function, determines what results for the conditions of life the one form has as compared with the other. Then one confronts the forms of democracy with non‐democratic forms of political order and endeavors to come to a position where the student may find the point from which, in terms of his ultimate ideals, he can take a stand. But the true teacher will beware of imposing from the platform any political position upon the student, whether it is expressed or suggested. ‘To let the facts speak for themselves’ is the most unfair way of putting over a political position to the student.

Why should we abstain from doing this? I state in advance that some highly esteemed colleagues are of the opinion that it is not possible to carry through this self‐restraint and that, even if it were possible, it would be a whim to avoid declaring oneself. Now one cannot demonstrate scientifically what the duty of an academic teacher is. One can only demand of the teacher that he have the intellectual integrity to see that it is one thing to state facts, to determine mathematical or logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values, while it is another thing to answer questions of the value of culture and its individual contents and the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations. These are quite heterogeneous problems. If he asks further why he should not deal with both types of problems in the lecture‐room, the answer is: because the prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform.

To the prophet and the demagogue, it is said: ‘Go your ways out into the streets and speak openly to the world,’ that is, speak where criticism is possible. In the lecture‐room we stand opposite our audience, and it has to remain silent. I deem it irresponsible to exploit the circumstance that for the sake of their career the students have to attend a teacher’s course while there is nobody present to oppose him with criticism. The task of the teacher is to serve the students with his knowledge and scientific experience and not to imprint upon them his personal political views. It is certainly possible that the individual teacher will not entirely succeed in eliminating his personal sympathies. He is then exposed to the sharpest criticism in the forum of his own conscience. And this deficiency does not prove anything; other errors are also possible, for instance, erroneous statements of fact, and yet they prove nothing against the duty of searching for the truth. I also reject this in the very interest of science. I am ready to prove from the works of our historians that whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases. But this goes beyond tonight’s topic and would require lengthy elucidation.

I ask only: How should a devout Catholic, on the one hand, and a Freemason, on the other, in a course on the forms of church and state or on religious history ever be brought to evaluate these subjects alike? This is out of the question. And yet the academic teacher must desire and must demand of himself to serve the one as well as the other by his knowledge and methods. Now you will rightly say that the devout Catholic will never accept the view of the factors operative in bringing about Christianity, which a teacher who is free of his dogmatic presuppositions presents to him. Certainly! The difference, however, lies in the following: Science ‘free from presuppositions,’ in the sense of a rejection of religious bonds, does not know of the ‘miracle’ and the ‘revelation.’ If it did, science would be unfaithful to its own ‘presuppositions.’ The believer knows both, miracle and revelation. And science ‘free from presuppositions’ expects from him no less ‐‐ and no more ‐‐ than acknowledgment that if the process can be explained without those supernatural interventions, which an empirical explanation has to eliminate as causal factors, the process has to be explained the way science attempts to do. And the believer can do this without being disloyal to his faith.

But has the contribution of science no meaning at all for a man who does not care to know facts as such and to whom only the practical standpoint matters? Perhaps science nevertheless contributes something.

The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts ‐‐ I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. I would be so immodest as even to apply the expression ‘moral achievement,’ though perhaps this may sound too grandiose for something that should go without saying.

Thus far I have spoken only of practical reasons for avoiding the imposition of a personal point of view. But these are not the only reasons. The impossibility of ‘scientifically’ pleading for practical and interested stands ‐‐ except in discussing the means for a firmly given and presupposed end ‐‐ rests upon reasons that lie far deeper. ‘Scientific’ pleading is meaningless in principle because the various value spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other. The elder Mill, whose philosophy I will not praise otherwise, was on this point right when he said: If one proceeds from pure experience, one arrives at polytheism. This is shallow in formulation and sounds paradoxical, and yet there is truth in it. If anything, we realize again today that something can be sacred not only in spite of its not being beautiful, but rather because and in so far as it is not beautiful. You will find this documented in the fifty‐third chapter of the book of Isaiah and in the twenty‐first Psalm. And, since Nietzsche, we realize that something can be beautiful, not only in spite of the aspect in which it is not good, but rather in that very aspect. You will find this expressed earlier in the Fleurs du mal, as Baudelaire named his volume of poems. It is commonplace to observe that something may be true although it is not beautiful and not holy and not good. Indeed it may be true in precisely those aspects. But all these are only the most elementary cases of the struggle that the gods of the various orders and values are engaged in. I do not know how one might wish to decide ‘scientifically’ the value of French and German culture; for here, too, different gods struggle with one another, now and for all times to come.

We live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons, only we live in a different sense. As Hellenic man at times sacrificed to Aphrodite and at other times to Apollo, and, above all, as everybody sacrificed to the gods of his city, so do we still nowadays, only the bearing of man has been disenchanted and denuded of its mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity. Fate, and certainly not ‘science,’ holds sway over these gods and their struggles. One can only understand what the godhead is for the one order or for the other, or better, what godhead is in the one or in the other order. With this understanding, however, the matter has reached its limit so far as it can be discussed in a lecture‐room and by a professor. Yet the great and vital problem that is contained therein is, of course, very far from being concluded. But forces other than university chairs have their say in this matter.

What man will take upon himself the attempt to ‘refute scientifically’ the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount? For instance, the sentence, ‘resist no evil,’ or the image of turning the other cheek? And yet it is clear, in mundane perspective, that this is an ethic of undignified conduct; one has to choose between the religious dignity that this ethic confers and the dignity of manly conduct which preaches something quite different; ‘resist evil‐‐ lest you be co‐responsible for an overpowering evil.’ According to our ultimate standpoint, the one is the devil and the other the God, and the individual has to decide which is God for him and which is the devil. And so it goes throughout all the orders of life.

The grandiose rationalism of an ethical and methodical conduct of life that flows from every religious prophecy has dethroned this polytheism in favor of the ‘one thing that is needful.’ Faced with the realities of outer and inner life, Christianity has deemed it necessary to make those compromises and relative judgments, which we all know from its history. Today the routines of everyday life challenge religion. Many old gods ascend from their graves; they are disenchanted and hence take the form of impersonal forces. They strive to gain power over our lives and again they resume their eternal struggle with one another. What is hard for modern man, and especially for the younger generation, is to measure up to workaday existence. The ubiquitous chase for ‘experience’ stems from this weakness; for it is weakness not to be able to countenance the stern seriousness of our fateful times.

Our civilization destines us to realize more clearly these struggles again, after our eyes have been blinded for a thousand years ‐‐ blinded by the allegedly or presumably exclusive orientation towards the grandiose moral fervor of Christian ethics.

But enough of these questions which lead far away. Those of our youth are in error who react to all this by saying, ‘Yes, but we happen to come to lectures in order to experience something more than mere analyses and statements of fact.’ The error is that they seek in the professor something different from what stands before them. They crave a leader and not a teacher. But we are placed upon the platform solely as teachers. And these are two different things, as one can readily see. Permit me to take you once more to America, because there one can often observe such matters in their most massive and original shape.

The American boy learns unspeakably less than the German boy. In spite of an incredible number of examinations, his school life has not had the significance of turning him into an absolute creature of examinations, such as the German. For in America, bureaucracy, which presupposes the examination diploma as a ticket of admission to the realm of office prebends, is only in its beginnings. The young American has no respect for anything or anybody, for tradition or for public office‐‐unless it is for the personal achievement of individual men. This is what the American calls ‘democracy.’ This is the meaning of democracy, however distorted its intent may in reality be, and this intent is what matters here. The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all. To be sure, if the teacher happens to be a football coach, then, in this field, he is a leader. But if he is not this (or something similar in a different field of sports), he is simply a teacher and nothing more. And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct. Now, when formulated in this manner, we should reject this. But the question is whether there is not a grain of salt contained in this feeling, which I have deliberately stated in extreme with some exaggeration.

Fellow students! You come to our lectures and demand from us the qualities of leadership, and you fail to realize in advance that of a hundred professors at least ninety‐nine do not and must not claim to be football masters in the vital problems of life, or even to be ‘leaders’ in matters of conduct. Please, consider that a man’s value does not depend on whether or not he has leadership qualities. And in any case, the qualities that make a man an excellent scholar and academic teacher are not the qualities that make him a leader to give directions in practical life or, more specifically, in politics. It is pure accident if a teacher also possesses this quality, and it is a critical situation if every teacher on the platform feels himself confronted with the students’ expectation that the teacher should claim this quality. It is still more critical if it is left to every academic teacher to set himself up as a leader in the lecture‐room. For those who most frequently think of themselves as leaders often qualify least as leaders. But irrespective of whether they are or are not, the platform situation simply offers no possibility of proving themselves to be leaders. The professor who feels called upon to act as a counselor of youth and enjoys their trust may prove himself a man in personal human relations with them. And if he feels called upon to intervene in the struggles of worldviews and party opinions, he may do so outside, in the market place, in the press, in meetings, in associations, wherever he wishes. But after all, it is somewhat too convenient to demonstrate one’s courage in taking a stand where the audience and possible opponents are condemned to silence.

Finally, you will put the question: ‘If this is so, what then does science actually and positively contribute to practical and personal “life”?’ Therewith we are back again at the problem of science as a ‘vocation.’

First, of course, science contributes to the technology of controlling life by calculating external objects as well as man’s activities. Well, you will say, that, after all, amounts to no more than the greengrocer of the American boy. I fully agree.

Second, science can contribute something that the greengrocer cannot: methods of thinking, the tools and the training for thought. Perhaps you will say: well, that is no vegetable, but it amounts to no more than the means for procuring vegetables. Well and good, let us leave it at that for today.

Fortunately, however, the contribution of science does not reach its limit with this. We are in a position to help you to a third objective: to gain clarity. Of course, it is presupposed that we ourselves possess clarity. As far as this is the case, we can make clear to you the following:

In practice, you can take this or that position when concerned with a problem of value ‐‐ for simplicity’s sake, please think of social phenomena as examples. If you take such and such a stand, then, according to scientific experience, you have to use such and such a means in order to carry out your conviction practically. Now, these means are perhaps such that you believe you must reject them. Then you simply must choose between the end and the inevitable means. Does the end ‘justify’ the means? Or does it not? The teacher can confront you with the necessity of this choice. He cannot do more, so long as he wishes to remain a teacher and not to become a demagogue. He can, of course, also tell you that if you want such and such an end, then you must take into the bargain the subsidiary consequences that according to all experience will occur. Again we find ourselves in the same situation as before. These are still problems that can also emerge for the technician, who in numerous instances has to make decisions according to the principle of the lesser evil or of the relatively best. Only to him one thing, the main thing, is usually given, namely, the end. But as soon as truly ‘ultimate’ problems are at stake for us this is not the case. With this, at long last, we come to the final service that science as such can render to the aim of clarity, and at the same time we come to the limits of science.

Besides we can and we should state: In terms of its meaning, such and such a practical stand can be derived with inner consistency, and hence integrity, from this or that ultimate weltanschauliche position. Perhaps it can only be derived from one such fundamental position, or maybe from several, but it cannot be derived from these or those other positions. Figuratively speaking, you serve this god and you offend the other god when you decide to adhere to this position. And if you remain faithful to yourself, you will necessarily come to certain final conclusions that subjectively make sense. This much, in principle at least, can be accomplished. Philosophy, as a special discipline, and the essentially philosophical discussions of principles in the other sciences attempt to achieve this. Thus, if we are competent in our pursuit (which must be presupposed here) we can force the individual, or at least we can help him, to give himself an account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct. This appears to me as not so trifling a thing to do, even for one’s own personal life. Again, I am tempted to say of a teacher who succeeds in this: he stands in the service of ‘moral’ forces; he fulfils the duty of bringing about self‐clarification and a sense of responsibility. And I believe he will be the more able to accomplish this, the more conscientiously he avoids the desire personally to impose upon or suggest to his audience his own stand.

This proposition, which I present here, always takes its point of departure from the one fundamental fact, that so long as life remains immanent and is interpreted in its own terms, it knows only of an unceasing struggle of these gods with one another. Or speaking directly, the ultimately possible attitudes toward life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice. Whether, under such conditions, science is a worthwhile ‘vocation’ for somebody, and whether science itself has an objectively valuable ‘vocation’ are again value judgments about which nothing can be said in the lecture‐room. To affirm the value of science is a presupposition for teaching there. I personally by my very work answer in the affirmative, and I also do so from precisely the standpoint that hates intellectualism as the worst devil, as youth does today, or usually only fancies it does. In that case the word holds for these youths: ‘Mind you, the devil is old; grow old to understand him.’ This does not mean age in the sense of the birth certificate. It means that if one wishes to settle with this devil, one must not take to flight before him as so many like to do nowadays. First of all, one has to see the devil’s ways to the end in order to realize his power and his limitations.

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self‐ clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe. This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation. We cannot evade it so long as we remain true to ourselves. And if Tolstoy’s question recurs to you: as science does not, who is to answer the question: ‘What shall we do, and, how shall we arrange our lives?’ or, in the words used here tonight: ‘Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?’ then one can say that only a prophet or a savior can give the answers. If there is no such man, or if his message is no longer believed in, then you will certainly not compel him to appear on this earth by having thousands of professors, as privileged hirelings of the state, attempt as petty prophets in their lecture‐rooms to take over his role. All they will accomplish is to show that they are unaware of the decisive state of affairs: the prophet for whom so many of our younger generation yearn simply does not exist. But this knowledge in its forceful significance has never become vital for them. The inward interest of a truly religiously ‘musical’ man can never be served by veiling to him and to others the fundamental fact that he is destined to live in a godless and prophetless time by giving him the ersatz of armchair prophecy. The integrity of his religious organ, it seems to me, must rebel against this.

Now you will be inclined to say: Which stand does one take towards the factual existence of ‘theology’ and its claims to be a ‘science’? Let us not flinch and evade the answer. To be sure, ‘theology’ and ‘dogmas’ do not exist universally, but neither do they exist for Christianity alone. Rather (going backward in time), they exist in highly developed form also in Islam, in Manicheanism, in Gnosticism, in Orphism, in Parsism, in Buddhism, in the Hindu sects, in Taoism, and in the Upanishads, and, of course, in Judaism. To be sure their systematic development varies greatly. It is no accident that Occidental Christianity ‐‐ in contrast to the theological possessions of Jewry ‐‐ has expanded and elaborated theology more systematically, or strives to do so. In the Occident the development of theology has had by far the greatest historical significance. This is the product of the Hellenic spirit, and all theology of the West goes back to it, as (obviously) all theology of the East goes back to Indian thought. All theology represents an intellectual rationalization of the possession of sacred values. No science is absolutely free from presuppositions, and no science can prove its fundamental value to the man who rejects these presuppositions. Every theology, however, adds a few specific presuppositions for its work and thus for the justification of its existence. Their meaning and scope vary. Every theology, including for instance Hinduist theology, presupposes that the world must have a meaning, and the question is how to interpret this meaning so that it is intellectually conceivable.

It is the same as with Kant’s epistemology. He took for his point of departure the presupposition: ‘Scientific truth exists and it is valid,’ and then asked: ‘Under which presuppositions of thought is truth possible and meaningful?’ The modern aestheticians (actually or expressly, as for instance, G. V. Lukacs) proceed from the presupposition that ‘works of art exist,’ and then ask: ‘How is their existence meaningful and possible?’

As a rule, theologies, however, do not content themselves with this (essentially religious and philosophical) presupposition. They regularly proceed from the further presupposition that certain ‘revelations’ are facts relevant for salvation and as such make possible a meaningful conduct of life. Hence, these revelations must be believed in. Moreover, theologies presuppose that certain subjective states and acts possess the quality of holiness, that is, they constitute a way of life, or at least elements of one, that is religiously meaningful. Then the question of theology is: How can these presuppositions, which must simply be accepted be meaningfully interpreted in a view of the universe? For theology, these presuppositions as such lie beyond the limits of ‘science.’ They do not represent ‘knowledge,’ in the usual sense, but rather a ‘possession.’ Whoever does not ‘possess’ faith, or the other holy states, cannot have theology as a substitute for them, least of all any other science. On the contrary, in every ‘positive’ theology, the devout reaches the point where the Augustinian sentence holds: credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est.

The capacity for the accomplishment of religious virtuosos ‐‐ the ‘intellectual sacrifice’ ‐‐ is the decisive characteristic of the positively religious man. That this is so is shown by the fact that in spite (or rather in consequence) of theology (which unveils it) the tension between the value‐spheres of ‘science’ and the sphere of ‘the holy’ is unbridgeable. Legitimately, only the disciple offers the ‘intellectual sacrifice’ to the prophet, the believer to the church. Never as yet has a new prophecy emerged (and I repeat here deliberately this image which has offended some) by way of the need of some modern intellectuals to furnish their souls with, so to speak, guaranteed genuine antiques. In doing so, they happen to remember that religion has belonged among such antiques, and of all things religion is what they do not possess. By way of substitute, however, they play at decorating a sort of domestic chapel with small sacred images from all over the world, or they produce surrogates through all sorts of psychic experiences to which they ascribe the dignity of mystic holiness, which they peddle in the book market. This is plain humbug or self‐ deception. It is, however, no humbug but rather something very sincere and genuine if some of the youth groups who during recent years have quietly grown together give their human community the interpretation of a religious, cosmic, or mystical relation, although occasionally perhaps such interpretation rests on misunderstanding of self. True as it is that every act of genuine brotherliness may be linked with the awareness that it contributes something imperishable to a super‐personal realm, it seems to me dubious whether the dignity of purely human and communal relations is enhanced by these religious interpretations. But that is no longer our theme.

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to ‘invent’ a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build‐up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’‐‐that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him. For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. In my eyes, such religious return stands higher than the academic prophecy, which does not clearly realize that in the lecture‐rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity. Integrity, however, compels us to state that for the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman’s song of the period of exile that has been included among Isaiah’s oracles:

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

The people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation. This, however, is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.

 

Posted in History, Politics, Writing

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

I’m posting today one of the greatest speeches ever given, from that master of rhetoric, Frederick Douglass.  It demonstrates the power of language to make arguments and change hearts.  In a time like ours, when rhetoric is used to promote the worst social ills, it’s gratifying to see what it can do in the right hands and for the right cause.

Below I’ve highlighted some of the most powerful sections of the speech, which is astonishingly quotable.  But I want to stress here the brilliant structure of the argument.  It’s divided into thirds.

The first section is a hymn of praise to the principles of liberty that infuse the American republic.  It’s the kind of speech people expect on Independence Day, and it lulls the audience into a state of contentment.

Then he takes a shockingly sudden turn, from praising the republic to denouncing it in the most powerful terms.  Picture how stunned his audience would have been to hear him, in the middle of the speech:

This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity….

After excoriating his country and his audience like this at great length and to great effect, he returns at the end of the speech to a strong defense of the US constitution as grounded not in slavery but liberty:

In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing [slavery]; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.

And he closes with this powerful statement of hope:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain.

Revel in the language, the message, and the messenger.

 Image result for frederick douglass images

What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Frederick Douglass

July 5, 1852

Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society

Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:

He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country schoolhouses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.

The papers and placards say, that I am to deliver a 4th [of] July oration. This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for it is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall, seems to free me from embarrassment.

The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable — and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence, I will proceed to lay them before you.

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.

Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.

But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. It would, certainly, prove nothing, as to what part I might have taken, had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed.

Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not the men to look back.

As the sheet anchor takes a firmer hold, when the ship is tossed by the storm, so did the cause of your fathers grow stronger, as it breasted the chilling blasts of kingly displeasure. The greatest and best of British statesmen admitted its justice, and the loftiest eloquence of the British Senate came to its support. But, with that blindness which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea, the British Government persisted in the exactions complained of.

The madness of this course, we believe, is admitted now, even by England; but we fear the lesson is wholly lost on our present ruler.

Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.

Such people lived then, had lived before, and will, probably, ever have a place on this planet; and their course, in respect to any great change, (no matter how great the good to be attained, or the wrong to be redressed by it), may be calculated with as much precision as can be the course of the stars. They hate all changes, but silver, gold and copper change! Of this sort of change they are always strongly in favor.

These people were called Tories in the days of your fathers; and the appellation, probably, conveyed the same idea that is meant by a more modern, though a somewhat less euphonious term, which we often find in our papers, applied to some of our old politicians.

Their opposition to the then dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it.

On the 2d of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it. “Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”

Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.

The coming into being of a nation, in any circumstances, is an interesting event. But, besides general considerations, there were peculiar circumstances which make the advent of this republic an event of special attractiveness.

The whole scene, as I look back to it, was simple, dignified and sublime.

The population of the country, at the time, stood at the insignificant number of three millions. The country was poor in the munitions of war. The population was weak and scattered, and the country a wilderness unsubdued. There were then no means of concert and combination, such as exist now. Neither steam nor lightning had then been reduced to order and discipline. From the Potomac to the Delaware was a journey of many days. Under these, and innumerable other disadvantages, your fathers declared for liberty and independence and triumphed.

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.

They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.

How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!

Fully appreciating the hardship to be encountered, firmly believing in the right of their cause, honorably inviting the scrutiny of an on-looking world, reverently appealing to heaven to attest their sincerity, soundly comprehending the solemn responsibility they were about to assume, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.

Of this fundamental work, this day is the anniversary. Our eyes are met with demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm. Banners and pennants wave exultingly on the breeze. The din of business, too, is hushed. Even Mammon seems to have quitted his grasp on this day. The ear-piercing fife and the stirring drum unite their accents with the ascending peal of a thousand church bells. Prayers are made, hymns are sung, and sermons are preached in honor of this day; while the quick martial tramp of a great and multitudinous nation, echoed back by all the hills, valleys and mountains of a vast continent, bespeak the occasion one of thrilling and universal interest — a nation’s jubilee.

Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.

I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait — perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

I leave, therefore, the great deeds of your fathers to other gentlemen whose claim to have been regularly descended will be less likely to be disputed than mine!

My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.

Trust no future, however pleasant,
Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have “Abraham to our father,” when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout — “We have Washington to our father.” — Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.

The evil that men do, lives after them, The good is oft-interred with their bones.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. — There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which, we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year, by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states, this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government, as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words, from the high places of the nation, as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade, as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the laws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our DOCTORS OF DIVINITY. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish themselves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass without condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and America religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh-jobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field, and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man, with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul! The crack you heard, was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard, was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow the drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me citizens, WHERE, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming “hand-bills,” headed CASH FOR NEGROES. These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners. Ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.

The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number have been collected here, a ship is chartered, for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.

In the deep still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door. The anguish of my boyish heart was intense; and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked; that she hated to hear the rattle of the chains, and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find one who sympathized with me in my horror.

Fellow-citizens, this murderous traffic is, to-day, in active operation in this boasted republic. In the solitude of my spirit, I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity, on the way to the slave-markets, where the victims are to be sold like horsessheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder. There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, caprice and rapacity of the buyers and sellers of men. My soul sickens at the sight.

Is this the land your Fathers loved,
The freedom which they toiled to win?
Is this the earth whereon they moved?
Are these the graves they slumber in?

But a still more inhuman, disgraceful, and scandalous state of things remains to be presented. By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old, slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason and Dixon’s line has been obliterated; New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the Star-Spangled Banner and American Christianity. Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun. By that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees, the liberty and person of every man are put in peril. Your broad republican domain is hunting ground for men. Not for thieves and robbers, enemies of society, merely, but for men guilty of no crime. Your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport. Your President, your Secretary of State, our lordsnobles, and ecclesiastics, enforce, as a duty you owe to your free and glorious country, and to your God, that you do this accursed thing. Not fewer than forty Americans have, within the past two years, been hunted down and, without a moment’s warning, hurried away in chains, and consigned to slavery and excruciating torture. Some of these have had wives and children, dependent on them for bread; but of this, no account was made. The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic, the rights of God included! For black men there are neither law, justice, humanity, not religion. The Fugitive Slave Law makes mercy to them a crime; and bribes the judge who tries them. An American judge gets ten dollars for every victim he consigns to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so. The oath of any two villains is sufficient, under this hell-black enactment, to send the most pious and exemplary black man into the remorseless jaws of slavery! His own testimony is nothing. He can bring no witnesses for himself. The minister of American justice is bound by the law to hear but one side; and that side, is the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world, that, in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America, the seats of justice are filled with judges, who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding in the case of a man’s liberty, hear only his accusers!

In glaring violation of justice, in shameless disregard of the forms of administering law, in cunning arrangement to entrap the defenseless, and in diabolical intent, this Fugitive Slave Law stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation. I doubt if there be another nation on the globe, having the brass and the baseness to put such a law on the statute-book. If any man in this assembly thinks differently from me in this matter, and feels able to disprove my statements, I will gladly confront him at any suitable time and place he may select.

I take this law to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind, or most wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it.

At the very moment that they are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent in respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance, and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness. Did this law concern the “mint, anise, and cumin” — abridge the right to sing psalms, to partake of the sacrament, or to engage in any of the ceremonies of religion, it would be smitten by the thunder of a thousand pulpits. A general shout would go up from the church, demanding repeal, repeal, instant repeal! — And it would go hard with that politician who presumed to solicit the votes of the people without inscribing this motto on his banner. Further, if this demand were not complied with, another Scotland would be added to the history of religious liberty, and the stern old Covenanters would be thrown into the shade. A John Knox would be seen at every church door, and heard from every pulpit, and Fillmore would have no more quarter than was shown by Knox, to the beautiful, but treacherous queen Mary of Scotland. The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions), does not esteem “the Fugitive Slave Law” as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such persons as “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.”

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, “Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”

The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”

Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive.

In prosecuting the anti-slavery enterprise, we have been asked to spare the church, to spare the ministry; but how, we ask, could such a thing be done? We are met on the threshold of our efforts for the redemption of the slave, by the church and ministry of the country, in battle arrayed against us; and we are compelled to fight or flee. From what quarter, I beg to know, has proceeded a fire so deadly upon our ranks, during the last two years, as from the Northern pulpit? As the champions of oppressors, the chosen men of American theology have appeared — men, honored for their so-called piety, and their real learning. The Lords of Buffalo, the Springs of New York, the Lathrops of Auburn, the Coxes and Spencers of Brooklyn, the Gannets and Sharps of Boston, the Deweys of Washington, and other great religious lights of the land have, in utter denial of the authority of Him by whom they professed to be called to the ministry, deliberately taught us, against the example or the Hebrews and against the remonstrance of the Apostles, they teach that we ought to obey man’s law before the law of God.

My spirit wearies of such blasphemy; and how such men can be supported, as the “standing types and representatives of Jesus Christ,” is a mystery which I leave others to penetrate. In speaking of the American church, however, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land. There are exceptions, and I thank God that there are. Noble men may be found, scattered all over these Northern States, of whom Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, Samuel J. May of Syracuse, and my esteemed friend (Rev. R. R. Raymond) on the platform, are shining examples; and let me say further, that upon these men lies the duty to inspire our ranks with high religious faith and zeal, and to cheer us on in the great mission of the slave’s redemption from his chains.

One is struck with the difference between the attitude of the American church towards the anti-slavery movement, and that occupied by the churches in England towards a similar movement in that country. There, the church, true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating, and improving the condition of mankind, came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and restored him to his liberty. There, the question of emancipation was a high religious question. It was demanded, in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God. The Sharps, the Clarksons, the Wilberforces, the Buxtons, and Burchells and the Knibbs, were alike famous for their piety, and for their philanthropy. The anti-slavery movement there was not an anti-church movement, for the reason that the church took its full share in prosecuting that movement: and the anti-slavery movement in this country will cease to be an anti-church movement, when the church of this country shall assume a favorable, instead of a hostile position towards that movement. Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!

But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that the right to hold and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic.

Then, I dare to affirm, notwithstanding all I have said before, your fathers stooped, basely stooped

To palter with us in a double sense:
And keep the word of promise to the ear,
But break it to the heart.

And instead of being the honest men I have before declared them to be, they were the veriest imposters that ever practiced on mankind. This is the inevitable conclusion, and from it there is no escape. But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe. There is not time now to argue the constitutional question at length — nor have I the ability to discuss it as it ought to be discussed. The subject has been handled with masterly power by Lysander Spooner, Esq., by William Goodell, by Samuel E. Sewall, Esq., and last, though not least, by Gerritt Smith, Esq. These gentlemen have, as I think, fully and clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery for an hour.

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land was made? Now, there are certain rules of interpretation, for the proper understanding of all legal instruments. These rules are well established. They are plain, common-sense rules, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed years in the study of law. I scout the idea that the question of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of slavery is not a question for the people. I hold that every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one. Without this right, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman. Ex-Vice-President Dallas tells us that the Constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted. He further says, the Constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens. Senator Berrien tell us that the Constitution is the fundamental law, that which controls all others. The charter of our liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly. The testimony of Senator Breese, Lewis Cass, and many others that might be named, who are everywhere esteemed as sound lawyers, so regard the constitution. I take it, therefore, that it is not presumption in a private citizen to form an opinion of that instrument.

Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.

I have detained my audience entirely too long already. At some future period I will gladly avail myself of an opportunity to give this subject a full and fair discussion.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic, are distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen, in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered fights again
Restore.

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end.
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
But all to manhood’s stature tower,
By equal birth!
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house, the thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive —
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.

 

Source: Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999), 188-206.

 

Posted in Higher Education, History, History of education

Q and A about A Perfect Mess

This is a Q and A I did with Scott Jaschik about my book, A Perfect Mess, shortly after it came out.  It was published in Inside Higher Ed in 2017.

‘A Perfect Mess’

Author discusses his new book about American higher education, which suggests it may be better off today than people realize … because it has always faced so many problems and has always been a “hustler’s paradise.”

By

Scott Jaschik
May 3, 2017

 

David F. Labaree’s new book makes a somewhat unusual argument to reassure those worried about the future of American higher education. Yes, it has many serious problems, he writes. But it always has and always will. And that is in fact a strength of American higher education, he argues.

Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, answered questions via email about his new book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press).

Q: What do you consider the uniquely American qualities in the development of higher education in the U.S.?

A: The American system of higher education emerged in a unique historical setting in the early 19th century, when the state was weak, the market strong and the church divided. Whereas the European university was the creature of the medieval Roman Catholic church and then grew strong under the rising nation-state in the early modern period, the American system lacked the steady support of church or state and had to rely on the market in order to survive. This posed a terrible problem in the 19th century, as colleges had to scrabble around looking for consumers who would pay tuition and for private sponsors who would provide donations. But at the same time, it planted the seeds of institutional autonomy that came to serve the system so well in the next two centuries. Free from the control of church and state, individual colleges learned to survive on their own resources by meeting the needs of their students and their immediate communities.

By the 20th century, this left the system with the proven ability to adapt to circumstances, take advantage of opportunities, build its own sources of political and economic support, and expand to meet demand. Today the highest-rated universities in global rankings of higher education institutions are the ones with the greatest autonomy, in particular as measured by being less dependent on state funds. And American institutions dominate these rankings; according to the Shanghai rankings, they account for 16 of the top 20 universities in the world.

Q: How significant is the decentralization of American higher education, with public and private systems, and publics reflecting very different traditions in different states?

A: Decentralization has been a critically important element in the American system of higher education. The federal government never established a national university, and state governments were slow in setting up their own colleges because of lack of funds. As a result, unlike anywhere else in the world, private colleges in the U.S. emerged before the publics. They were born as not-for-profit corporations with state charters but with little public funding and no public control.

The impulse for founding these colleges had little to do with advancing higher learning. Instead founders established these institutions primarily to pursue two other goals — to promote the interests of one religious denomination over others and to make land in one town more attractive to buy than land in a neighboring town. Typically, these two aims came together. Developers would donate land and set up a college, seek affiliation with a church, and then use this college as a way to promote their town as a cultural center rather than a dusty agricultural village. Remember that early America had too much land and not enough buyers. The federal government was giving it away. This helps explain why American colleges arose in the largest numbers in the sparsely populated frontier rather than in the established cities in the East — why Ohio had so many more colleges than Massachusetts or Virginia.

Q: What eras strike you as those in which American higher education was most threatened?

A: American higher education was in the greatest jeopardy in the period after the Civil War. The system was drastically overbuilt. In 1880 the U.S. had more than 800 colleges, five times the number in the entire continent of Europe. Overall, however, they were poor excuses for institutions of higher education. On average they had only 130 students and 10 faculty, which made them barely able to survive from year to year, forced to defer faculty salaries and beg for donations. European visitors loved to write home about how intellectually and socially undistinguished they were.

The system as a whole had only one great asset — a huge amount of capacity. What it lacked, however, was sufficient students and academic credibility. Fortunately, both of these elements arose in the last quarter of the century to save the day. The rise of white-collar employment in the new corporations and government agencies created demand for people with strong cognitive, verbal and social skills, the kinds of things that students learn in school. And with the public high schools filling up with working-class students, the college became the primary way for middle-class families to provide their children with advantaged access to managerial and professional work. At the same time, the import of the German model of the university, with a faculty of specialized researchers sporting the new badge of merit, the Ph.D., offered American colleges and universities the possibility for academic stature that had so long eluded them. This steady flow of students and newfound academic distinction allowed the system to realize the potential embedded in its expansive capacity and autonomous structure.

Q: You seem to be suggesting not to worry too much about today’s problems, because higher education has always been a “perfect mess.” But are there issues that are notably worse today than in the past?

A: First, let me say a little about the advantages of the system’s messiness. In the next section, I’ll respond about the problem facing the system today. The relative autonomy and decentralization of American higher education allows individual colleges and universities to find their own ways of meeting needs, finding supporters and making themselves useful. They can choose to specialize, focusing on particular parts of the market — by level of degree, primary consumer base, religious orientation or vocational function. Or, like the big public and private universities, they can choose to provide something for everyone. This makes for individual institutions that don’t have a clean organization chart, looking instead like what some researchers have called “organized anarchies.”

The typical university is in constant tension between autonomous academic departments, which control curriculum and faculty hiring and promotion, and a strong president, who controls funding and is responsible only to the lay board of directors who own the place. Also thrown into the mix are a jumble of independent institutes, research centers and academic programs that have emerged in response to a variety of funding opportunities and faculty initiatives. The resulting institution is a hustler’s paradise, driven by a wide array of entrepreneurial actors: faculty trying to pursue intellectual interests and forge a career; administrators trying to protect and enrich the larger enterprise; and donors and students who want to draw on the university’s rich resources and capitalize on association with its stellar brand. These actors are feverishly pursuing their own interests within the framework of the university, which lures them with incentives, draws strength from their complex interactions and then passes these benefits on to society.

Q: What do you see as the major challenges facing academic leaders today?

A: The biggest problem facing the American system of higher education today is how to deal with its own success. In the 19th century, very few people attended college, so the system was not much in the public spotlight. Burgeoning enrollments in the 20th century put the system center stage, especially when it became the expectation that most people should graduate from some sort of college. As higher education moved from being an option to becoming a necessity, it increasingly found itself under the kind of intense scrutiny that has long been directed at American schools.

Accountability pressure in the last three decades has reshaped elementary and secondary schooling, and now the accountability police are headed to the college campus. As with earlier iterations, this reform effort demands that colleges demonstrate the value that students and the public are getting for their investment in higher education. This is particularly the case because higher education is so much more expensive per student than schooling at lower levels. So how much of this cost should the public pay from tax revenues and how much debt should individual students take on?

The danger posed by this accountability pressure is that colleges, like the K-12 schools before them, will come under pressure to narrow their mission to a small number of easily measurable outcomes. Most often the purpose boils down to the efficient delivery of instructional services to students, which will provide them with good jobs and provide society with an expanding economy. This ignores the wide array of social functions that the university serves. It’s a laboratory for working on pressing social problems; a playpen for intellectuals to pursue whatever questions seem interesting; a repository for the knowledge needed to address problems that haven’t yet emerged; a zone of creativity and exploration partially buffered from the realm of necessity; and, yes, a classroom for training future workers. The system’s organizational messiness is central to its social value.

Posted in History, History of education

Perils of the Professionalized Historian

This is a short piece about the problems that professionalism poses for the academic historian.  History is a different kind of subject, and too often academic rigor gets in the way of telling the kinds of historical accounts that we need.

An earlier version was published in 2017 in the International Journal of the Historiography of Education.

Perils of the Professionalized Historian

David F. Labaree

Professionalism poses problems for the academic historian. History is an intensely normative domain, full of emotion and bubbling over with value judgments. It tells us compelling stories about who we are, where we came from, what we stand for, and why we should feel proud of our country and our heritage. This is why the school history curriculum is so different from other core school subjects like math and science. They are about stuff; history is about us. We learn about other subjects, but we inhabit and even embody history. As a result, writers of history bear a peculiar burden — as potential molders of persons and peoples, shaping our past in order to frame our choices in the present and thus propel us into the future.

We academic historians are all too well aware that the misuses of history are legion. Every political movement crafts its own backstory, which makes the case for the problem that needs to be solved, the golden age that needs to be recaptured, the grievance that needs to be assuaged. The most effective demagogues are history mongers, and this makes us cringe. Our response is to try to set the record straight. Others may purvey myth and nostalgia in the name of history, but we hold ourselves to a higher standard, which is spelled out in the Principles for Professional Historians. One principle is empiricism: Root historical judgments deeply in the rich soil of archival evidence. Compile everything, read everything, and judiciously sort through the evidence. Then write a very long book that is half footnotes. Another principle is objectivity. The problem with this approach is that it leaves the field of history wide open for merchants of nostalgia and purveyors of paranoia, who are more than happy to fulfill the public longing for a compelling moral narrative, unfreighted with rules of evidence and analytical rigor. Steel yourself against personal prejudice and received wisdom, instead pursuing the evidence wherever it leads you. Avoid characterizing actors as heroes or villains, and exercise judgment through rational analysis rather than through the application of values. In sum, remember that you’re not a storyteller; you’re historian. A third principle is specialization. Aim to go narrow and deep into an issue. Focus on digging new ground, no matter how infertile, rather than plowing familiar terrain. At all cost avoid adopting the role of synthesizer, which is suitable only for textbook writers and “popular” (that is, widely read) historians.

Relentlessly analytical professional historians have left a narrative void, and ruthless amateurs are eager to fill it. Charles Tilly (2006) examines the roots of this problem in his book, Why. In it he makes the distinction between the way that experts and ordinary people construct explanations of events. The expert’s argument is a technical account, which sets out to establish a valid and reliable explanation of cause and effect using specialized expertise and rigorous methodology. For non-experts, the standard account is a story, which focuses on actors and actions, traces a narrative arc, often involves heroes and villains, and usually carries a moral element of praise or blame.

Academic historians have adopted the voice of the expert, which satisfies our impulse to be recognized as professionals rather than bards. But this approach traps us in the zone of expertise, talking to each other and leaving the zone of popular culture to the more narratively gifted and often less scrupulously accurate retailers of nostalgia. And the problem with adopting the voice of expertise does more than unnecessarily narrow our audience, since it also means that too often we are writing a gutless and bowdlerized kind of history, bereft of the values and characters and stirring tales that give history its meaning.

If we buy this analysis, however, it leaves us academic historians with a dilemma. We don’t want to slide into popularization at the expense of validation. We don’t want to be in the business of selling nostalgia and nurturing ideology. But I think there is a way out. We can reengage with the normative character of history in human culture and reestablish the norm that history is about storytelling. At the same time, however, we can avoid the populist impulse by deliberately seeking to address our histories of the past to the demands, anxieties, and dilemmas we experience in the present. This history for the present can still avoid the disingenuousness and deception of the populist histories that shape the story to meet the urgent demands of a particular program or prejudice. We can do this by providing the history that we currently need, not the history we might want. This kind of history taps into the normative and the narrative elements that are so quintessentially historical without pandering to political agendas and cultural fears. We can use the skills of the nonprofessional historian to provide inconvenient truths for the present.

 

Charles Tilly.  (2006).  Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons…and Why. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Posted in Writing, Writing Class

Academic Writing Class — Complete Course Materials in One Document

Earlier I posted course materials for my academic writing class (both 6-week and 10-week versions via a link to a Google drive that contained the syllabus and class slides.

Here I’m posting a more compact and convenient version of each class.  The syllabus for each class contains embedded links to both the readings for the class each week and the slides for that week.  So all you need is the syllabus.  This also makes it easier to share with other people: send the syllabus and they’ll have everything they need.

Feel free to forward to anyone you like.

Syllabus for 6 week class

Syllabus for 10 week class